Danny Boyle’s “Trance” a totally progressive neo-noir

The way many film theorists would have it, the film-noir genre died alongside studios’ penchants for black-and-white film-stock and audiences’ penchants for studios. I, however, don’t see it in such a cut-and-dry way. Yeah, while the surge of personal, innovative filmmaking in the mid-’60s rendered the genre outdated for a while — with its dastardly plots, femme fatales and seedy motivations — it has often returned in totally original, unexpected packages. Danny Boyle’s new work, Trance, is an especially strong case for this: while anchored in a genre well-known for its generally disposable, emotionless nature, this is a film that manages to find a strong emotional core amidst innumerable plot twists, motivation reversals and an editing style more akin to banging, kinetic music videos than typical feature films. It’s a candy-colored feast of noise and fury, but not without reason and not without center.

See, the film follows James McAvoy as Simon, a fairly charming London art auctioneer who happens to be mired in massive amounts of gambling debt. To wipe these out, he collaborates with a group of art thieves — led by Franck, played by the dependably excellent Vincent Cassel — to heist a Goya painting at his own exhibition. When Simon tries to double-cross them by stashing the painting somewhere for himself, however, Franck reacts in a fury and strikes him across the head. The problem? When Simon wakes up, he swears that he has no recollection of where he hid it. Once methods of torture prove ineffective, the thieves turn to the only remaining possibility — hiring Elizabeth, a beautiful, headstrong hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to crack inside Simon’s memories and pull out an answer.

Trance from here on enters trippily subjective territory, with dreams, hallucinations, reality, and implanted memories all becoming faint suggestions of one another. Characters we come to identify with reveal themselves as monsters, while villainous figures end up among the more sympathetic of the bunch. Credit it to Boyle for crafting a masterfully confusing little thriller, until the ending, which manages to wrap up all flailing loose ends while still feeling a bit underwhelming. It’s here where screenwriter John Hodges abandons his tight grasp of characters’ traits and limitations — insisting on a pretty standard shoot-em-up conclusion, which feels odd for a script that so proudly celebrates the ability of film to navigate the subjectivity of human memory. Think of it as a scrappier spiritual sibling to Inception — and while it never reaches that film’s big-budget, brain-blowing highs, Trance manages to find the solid emotional core that Chris Nolan’s 2010 masterwork never quite could.

Indeed, Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist proves to be the most complex, resonant character of them all. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that she’s surrounded by thieves and liars, but in interviews both Dawson and director Danny Boyle have indicated that Trance is, among other things, a response to the often subordinate role of women in the modern thriller. By making a woman the beating core of Trance (without spoiling too much, a massive plot twist sees Dawson’s character assert her independence), the film even further makes headway for its genre. Trance‘s script is admittedly that of an average B-movie thriller, but by shooting it through a colorful Euro-art-trash lens and infusing progressive ideas into the mix (both technical and social), Danny Boyle gives it meaning, life, and noise. Lots of noise. B+

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