"Trance" Equal Parts Commanding, Confounding

The most obvious explanation for the existence of “Trance” is that its director, Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), saw Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and thought to himself, “I want one of those.” “Trance” also shares more than a few things in common with Nolan’s best work, the gloriously disorienting “Memento.” But Boyle’s latest exists purely on his terms, and labeling it as derivative would be a tremendous disservice to one of our best working filmmakers. Boyle knows how to make one hell of a film, and “Trance” is one. At times, it’s a deliriously head-spinning exercise in light and sound, attacking the audience’s senses while spitting in the face of linear storytelling, smiling all the while.

James McAvoy (“X-Men: First Class”) stars as Simon, an art auctioneer who’s aiding a band of criminals in a heist. When he betrays the group’s leader, Franck (Vincent Cassel), during the robbery, he’s knocked unconscious. And when he awakens, he can’t recall the location of the $25 million Goya piece – or so he claims. The opening minutes of the film are dedicated to Simon’s description of the perfect art heist (during which McAvoy repeatedly breaks the fourth wall), followed by the actual heist. It’s a dazzling, rhythmic sequence that uses masterful editing and sound design to set the pace for the rest of the pic.

In the aftermath of the botched robbery, Franck decides to subject Simon to hypnotherapy as a means to find the missing artwork. Enter Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth, a hypnotherapist who quickly becomes wise to the men’s plan and demands a piece of the pie.

As writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge inject the story with multiple hypnosis sessions, the film becomes even more ethereal and harder to pin down. Everyone’s motives come into question and a particularly inspired scene does its best to ascribe new meaning to the phrase “Strawberry Fields.” As each scene unravels, most of them engineered to slip through the fingers of the audience, the film practically basks in its impenetrability. Boyle is gleefully challenging the audience, but not gloating. Later scenes suggest that he, too, is unsure of the significance of it all.

But as bewildering as the narrative is, it’s the technical side of “Trance” that steals the show. The aforementioned sound design is electric – practically a character unto itself. Combined with a pretty terrific score, it adds up to one of the more memorable aural experiences I’ve had in a theater in some time. Pay special attention to the way in which Dawson’s voice is altered throughout the film, as well as the knocking sound effect that gets a reprise during the end credits.

Yet, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography might be the pinnacle of the picture’s accomplishments. The colors are rich and the overall sense of visual momentum is enough to carry the film through a few narrative lulls. His cinematography here is in line with the fantastic work he did on both “Slumdog Millionaire” and last year’s “Dredd,” and I’m genuinely excited to see what he’ll do next.

Because “Trance” is so aggressively confounding, it virtually demands a second viewing. But I’m not convinced that the piece has much innate coherence. Like the kind of art depicted in the film, it mandates a reaction from the viewer and leaves its meaning up to the individual. Some viewers will balk at the graphic violent and sexual content, while others will let their frustration with the story get the best of them. But active, experienced moviegoers will likely appreciate this odd cinematic contraption – one that I look forward to revisiting in the future.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 5, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language)