Danny Boyle's last endeavor was producing the opening night festivities for London's Olympiad. Much like the five rings of the Olympic Games symbol, his newest film, Trance, finds the director coming full circle. He's reunited with John Hodge, the screenwriter of his first four feature films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach and also Boyle's short film Alien Love Triangle). It features the first original score by Rick Smith (Underworld, Brit progressive house, whose international breakthrough came via tracks in Trainspotting) and it features a number of the hard R-rated elements (full frontal nudity, bloody violence) that he was known for before engaging in Academy approved uplift (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours).
Where some of Boyle's kinetic, hyper-stylized music video camera approach in Slumdog and 127 Hours felt a little out of place, it is perfect in Trance: a techno heist film. I'd almost call it a cyberpunk movie, as it feels plugged into some technological grid. However, nothing is really done with computers (sans an iPad package delivery); the opening heist at an art auction house could have been pulled off in a Jules Dassin 50's noir, and there is no hacking done. Boyle and Hodge use hypnotherapy as a device to hack into characters brains and re-wire their internal synapses. That a clue is placed on an iPad labeled as "Trance" perhaps indicates that our current foggy state of self-unawareness comes from a trance induced reliance on technology. Otherwise, without this device, Trance is decidedly an old school thriller, pushed forward by a pulsing electronic soundtrack.
James McAvoy plays an auctioneer at a very pricey London art auction house. Opening the film he tells the audience the extreme precautions taken if a heist is to occur, cut against an actual heist while he is taking bids. It's not a spoiler to say that the heist is an inside job that McAvoy has done to recoup on his gambling debts by involving a group of London thugs (led by Vincent Cassel) or that the thugs discover that the painting (Goya's "Witches in the Air," worth approximately £30 million) that they thought they stole is actually missing; or that during the heist McAvoy is knocked unconscious and can't remember what he did with it -- this is all in the trailer, and the first 20 minutes of the film -- but everything thereafter can't be revealed, as that is the ride.
Rosario Dawson is the hypnotherapist that Cassel hires to unlock McAvoy's brain to find the painting (cheers to Boyle for finally giving Dawson a close to leading role; she, who is so often saddled with small parts or the girlfriend role, creates a character who's essentially scheming a heist of the mind, though her motives are guarded). There are fantastic scenes of acted out repression, and fears, and for the first two thirds of the film it is difficult to tell what is real and what isn't.
Boyle achieves this effect by keeping the same players involved in most scenes -- there aren't new character introductions -- which creates shifting planes of what could possibly be real and what couldn't. Similarly, the production design (by Mark Tildesley) of Dawson's apartment is perfect: sleek, sterile and bleeding neon on the edges, the interior looks like an art piece; the characters are trapped in a modern art piece while searching for a classical painting that was cut out of a frame (modern heist film vs. old school heist film?). In fact, Trance is almost a chamber play in this regard: the proximity of Cassel, the hypnotist and the auctioneer during sessions within her apartment keeps a steady threat of violence present at all times, whether induced by real fear or the pleasure within his mind.
For the first two thirds of Trance there is a nice wobbling effect similar to David Cronenberg's eXistenZ where it is difficult to tell what is real and what isn't and people are snapped back into their current plane of existence without knowing if they'd done certain actions. Where Trance falters is that it uses the entirety of the third act to explain everything that really happened. Although it does allow for Boyle to engage in some Shallow Grave -era scenes of Grand Guignol (discovery bodies), Trance works best as a violent, repressed mind-bender, with things less explained. In that regard the first two acts are exciting, funny, awkward, arousing and violent -- fully engaged in the brain of our lead character. The finale isn't a clunker, but it just loses the trancelike quality that made it most entertaining from the start.
Trance isn't a great techno-noir thriller (in the end the modern art gives way to the classical style), but it's close. It's a nice return to genre fare for Boyle and, interestingly enough, it finds him in the first heat of his run around the rings in the coming full circle of his career: his next collaboration with Hodge is Porno, the sequel to Trainspotting, and yes indeed, after a falling out Boyle will be reuniting with Ewan McGregor. Unlike the third act of Trance -- the interest in that -- needs no extended explanation.