The Film: Trance (2013)
The Principles: Written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. Directed by Danny Boyle. Acted by James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani and Matt Cross.
The Premise: James McAvoy plays an art auctioneer who gets into bed with a group of criminals (led by Vincent Cassel) in order to be the inside man for the robbery of an extremely valuable Goya painting. The problems arise when during the robbery, McAvoy gets a head injury and later can’t remember where he stashed the not quite priceless piece of art. Enter Rosario Dawson as a professional hypnotherapist brought in to help McAvoy remember the painting’s location. With her character’s entrance also comes some extremely trippy imagery, mind-fuckery and the overwhelming sensation that nothing is at it seems.
Is it Good? No, but it’s entertaining. Danny Boyle is incapable of directing a film that isn’t at least visually stimulating and Trance delivers that all over the place, but the script is so thin that none of it adds up to a satisfying whole. Be forewarned, I’m going to get pretty spoilery in the next paragraph, so if you want to go into this blind go ahead and skip down a ways.
One of the things Trance needed to really work was a much deeper exploration of Vincent Cassel’s character Franck. The power and meaning of the final few scenes of the film rely on the audience having some sort of connection to Franck and his relationship to Dawson’s character, Elizabeth. The problem is that Franck’s entire arc of the film is the retrieval of the painting and every single one of his scenes revolves around him making McAvoy realize that he’s super fucking serious about getting the painting back. He is never seen to have any interests outside of this one robbery he’s committed until he has sex with Elizabeth, which inspires him to say he’s like to see her again. That’s it. So when the final confrontation happens between Franck and McAvoy’s Simon, all the script dos is make Simon more villainous than Franck and expects us to start rooting for him. When Elizabeth saves Franck, it would have been a triumphant moment if we were given a little time to see that these two ciphers actually care about each other, but it instead felt like a moment left over from another draft when Franck was given more to do other than being a stick to thwack Simon’s knuckles.
The film was obviously always going to play with structure and timelines since we’re dealing with a movie based around hypnosis, but Trance would have worked much better as an actual film if it were told more linearly. Because of the tricksy storytelling and the constantly hidden motivations, we’re only given insight into the characters true feelings until the final minutes of the film. Films like Memento and Unbreakable revel in those last minute reveals because they allow for future viewings to wow the viewers with their structural integrity and brilliance. But Trance cheats quickly and often and it’s hard to call bullshit on it because the entire premise is based on having an unreliable narrator who doesn’t remember large chunks of his life. The script might not be breaking the rules as much as saying that there aren’t any to hang around the seams, which show every time you try and put much thought into what you’re looking at.
There is a really good movie buried in here somewhere and the glimpses of it make the final product that much more infuriating. Rosario Dawson is fearless in this role as she takes what easily could have been played flat and expressionless and adds a lived-in humanity to Elizabeth that makes her absolutely electrifying. Rosario Dawson should play Wonder Woman in the upcoming Justice League film, for reals. She is a marvel. Or a DC. McAvoy is also very good in a role that keeps him on edge for the entire running time, but he never slips into acting for the cheap seats. The acting combined with Anthony Dod Mantle’s usual brilliant cinematography and Danny Boyle’s constantly jaw dropping direction should have made Trance one of the year’s best instead of one of the year’s biggest disappointments.
Random Anecdotes: The role of Franck was initially going to be played by Michael Fassbender and I have a feeling his inclusion would have made Trance an entirely different film. Nothing against Vincent Cassel, but he has a cold, aloof arrogance to him that comes out whether he’s playing a hero or a villain. Because of this distance he always has from his co-stars, it makes it very hard to know whether he means warm and kind things he says to them or whether it’s all part of a nefarious plan. If Fassbender had played the role, I have a feeling that his relationship with Dawson would have made much more sense and given the conclusion of the film a sense of beautiful uncertainty that this film was lacking.
Is It Worth A Look: Yes and no. It really depends on your ability to sit through some really dumb shit in order to find the transcendent moments. Again, Dawson is luminous in this role and makes Trance worth watching, but only for those that don’t let one (admittedly terrible) aspect of a film sour them for the entire thing.
Cinematic Soulmates: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Killing Them Softly, Oceans 12.