April 10 2013 02:35 PM

You'll start to wonder just who's head you're in

James McAvoy takes a back seat to a screenplay.
At the end of Trance, director Danny Boyle's new movie, you may feel inclined to dismiss it as a neatly packaged thriller whose twists and turns are all straightened out in the final moments. I confess that I did, but a post-screening discussion made me rethink things.

That's precisely the response I believe Boyle and John Hodge, his longtime screenwriting collaborator, want, because Trance is really a hypno-thriller, and second-guessing yourself in this case is part of the intrigue. The movie is all about getting up into someone's head: The characters try to determine what is real versus what they're being guided into thinking. At a certain point, in fact, you may start to think that the person whose head the movie is all up in is your own.

Boyle's new film—opening Friday, April 12, at Hillcrest Cinemas—has shades of Inception, Shutter Island and, yes, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That's a trifecta of mind-over-matter movies, and though I initially felt that Trance didn't belong in that company, upon reflection I've begun to wonder if perhaps it does. Boyle's movies have always been slick and stylish, and Trance is no different, though it seems something of an odd choice in the wake of the work he's done since winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire (work that's included a theatrical production of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbach and the opening-night ceremonies for the London Olympics).

In this one, James McAvoy stars as Simon, an auctioneer who specializes in selling fine art. As we learn early on, auction houses such as the one that employs him have procedures for when they're strong-armed during a sale. That doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it's fast, well-staged and terrifying, and the key is to take the most valuable piece of art and move it to a secure location. Simon's training kicks in when Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his crew show up to take away a $20-million painting, but the end result is that Simon takes a serious blow to the head, resulting in brain surgery and acute memory loss. Yeah, that's bad news for everyone, especially since no one knows where the painting is—and, oh yeah, minor spoiler: Simon was the inside man. I say "minor" because this becomes known very quickly—Trance isn't about whether or not Simon helped steal the painting. He did. It's about locating it once it goes missing.

His associates are understandably pissed, but neither traditional medicine nor torture offers results, so Franck ships Simon off to see a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who finds that although Simon is responsive to her techniques, his mind is trying hard not to remember, probably because his brain is sure that Franck will whack him as soon as he has his hands on the painting. Soon, Elizabeth's in on the caper, too, working with the crooks to see who has the key that unlocks Simon's mind.

These sessions go deep into the subconscious, and at a certain point, it becomes difficult to know what's real and what's hypnosis. And there's more to it than that. After all, betrayal is easy if someone's completely under your power, and Trance is all about remembering, forgetting and betraying.

McAvoy is appealing enough, but it's odd how flatly Dawson—normally a charming, interesting actor— plays Elizabeth (yet she's not afraid to literally bare every last inch of herself, in case you were wondering). It's Cassel who turns in the most interesting performance, though he's something of a third wheel.

The real star here is Hodge, whose screenplay rolls right along until it reaches what feels like an inevitable conclusion. But is the ending really the ending? You might need to see a therapist to work that out, though, after Trance, seeing a hypnotherapist will probably be off the table. 

Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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