Friday, April 12, 2013

Trance: A puzzle that isn't worth solving

Trance (2013) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for graphic nudity, sexual content, profanity, torture, violence and grisly images
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.12.13

Everybody wants to write the next House of Games or Usual Suspects.

Very few writers are as clever as David Mamet and Christopher McQuarrie.

When Simon (James McAvoy, center) loses his memory and can't recall a really, really,
really important detail, the ruthless Franck (Vincent Cassel) insists on securing the
services of hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who quickly starts
playing both ends against the middle. Or maybe not...
Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, who’ve co-scripted Trance, don’t even come close. With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, their irritating little thriller is a dream within a dream ... within a dream. And probably within another dream. I’m reminded of the more irritating aspects of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, another drama that tried much too hard to be crafty.

But whereas it was possible to trace all the threads within Inception, and maintain their continuity and interior logic — if only with an Excel spreadsheet — you’ll have no such luck with Trance. The premise invites mistrust right off the bat, and the subsequent behavior of its six primary characters is too daft to be taken at face value.

Which seems to make sense, at times, because we gradually learn that we’re not necessarily supposed to take things at face value. Except, apparently, when we are.

Frankly, I think Ahearne and Hodge just like to jerk us around.

Because Trance is directed by Danny Boyle — the superbly skilled master of both intimate character studies (127 Hours) and riveting ensemble dramas (Slumdog Millionaire) — it is assembled provocatively, from a production standpoint. The various London settings are visually exotic; cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle moves the camera in a manner guaranteed to unsettle and disorient.

The performances are compelling (to a point), the dialogue taut and laced with both latent menace and implied subterfuge (to an excessive point). The story’s prologue, detailing an auction house art heist, has all the adrenalin-surging snap of high-tone caper films such as The Thomas Crown Affair. Rick Smith’s jazz-inflected score builds on the tension.

For a time, we admire the ride and crave more of the same. Sadly, things go pear-shaped all too quickly.

Simon (James McAvoy), a fine arts auctioneer, introduces himself on camera and explains the elements necessary for a well-executed theft: in this case, of the rather disturbing Goya masterpiece Witches in the Air. Above all else, Simon tells us, one must remain calm, and do nothing to incur personal danger. No painting is worth a human life.

Just as Simon concludes this little speech, surprise-surprise: An actual heist does go down, orchestrated by the suave-yet-deadly Franck (Vincent Cassel). Simon, caught in the middle, behaves foolishly, contrary to his own advice. He sustains a serious head injury, and winds up hospitalized for quite some time.

Upon release, he’s snatched by Franck and his three associates: Nate (Danny Sapani), Dominic (Matt Cross) and Riz (Wahab Sheikh). Turns out Simon is part of the gang, but there’s a problem; after Franck and the others got away with the goods, they unwrapped the carefully packaged painting to find ... an empty frame. The prize — the Goya canvas — is gone.

Logic dictates that Simon attempted some sort of double-cross, and therefore hid the canvas somewhere. But not even torture — nasty enough to make you recoil, and that’s a promise — can extract the details. That bump on the head left him with genuine amnesia.

What to do? Why, hire a hypnotherapist to unlock the information in Simon’s head, of course. Enter Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), along with Franck’s unlikely scheme to monitor and somehow maintain control over Simon’s subsequent therapy sessions. That doesn’t last long; Elizabeth quickly susses out the truth, demands a meeting with Franck and the others, and makes herself part of their team.

As a means of gaining Simon’s trust, you see, and better breaking through his amnesia.

Swallowing the notion that Franck and the others would so blithely accept Elizabeth at face value — rather than simply kill her, and move on — is difficult enough; indeed, it’s utterly impossible. But contrivance gets far worse when she insists on hypnotizing them, as well ... and they naïvely let her do it. These tough, hard-case criminals.

Oh, come on.

Right about this point, having witnessed Elizabeth’s facility for inducing trances and planting post-hypnotic suggestions, we cease taking any new revelations at face value. The narrators aren’t reliable, nor can the fresh plot machinations be trusted. I began to wonder if Simon still were in his hospital bed, concocting this whole scenario as some frenzied fever dream ... and that’s as logical an explanation as any others that might waft into your head.

OK, fine, so the narrative ground on which we’re standing is shaky, perhaps wholly contrived. Maybe there’s a valid, real-world reason for everybody’s exaggerated, oddly weird behavior ... not to mention Elizabeth’s rather voracious sexual appetite. And the fact that Franck and the others let Simon run around on his own, rather than sitting on him 24/7.

At one point, in the increasingly twisty third act, it actually looked like Ahearne and Hodge might uncork a miracle and pull it off.

But no. Between the things that appear real and aren’t, and those that seem false but are real — not to mention a final Big Reveal that simply piles more questions atop too many inconsistencies — the writers paint themselves into a convoluted corner from which their script cannot escape. Nor, by that point, do we give a damn.

McAvoy makes an engaging protagonist, in great part because we’re never entirely sure if he’s a good guy who deserves to solve and survive this situation. McAvoy employs his signature accent to great effect; Simon is too suave and resourceful not to like. The actor has trod similar ground before, in 2008’s laughably bombastic and similarly disorienting Wanted. He’s believably sympathetic as a perplexed fellow attempting to deal with revelations that his life and memories aren’t quite what he has assumed for ... how long?

Cassel’s Franck is smooth as silk ... to a point. Trouble is, Cassel so persuasively establishes Franck as an intelligent, competent and brutal criminal mastermind, that his submissive conduct with Elizabeth looks, sounds and feels utterly wrong. Daft, even.

It would appear that her hold on him is merely sexual, which makes him unacceptably shallow. A priceless stolen painting on the line, and he succumbs to schoolboy lust? Really?


Dawson, most crucially, swans through the entire film with the oddly inappropriate assurance of a grade-school principal who has the ability to put her five new companions in detention. Elizabeth’s psycho-babble dialogue, all delivered with an absolutely straight face, is a relic right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound ... where Ingrid Bergman did a much better job with similar lines.

Like McAvoy and Cassel, Dawson’s performance is mannered, heightened and at times laughably grave. All deliberate, of course; Boyle clearly wants to keep us off-balance. But the eventual payoff isn’t worth the effort to keep up.

Fairness demands that Dawson receive credit for fearlessness, though. As unlikely as it sounds, a plot point in this bizarre storyline concerns a woman’s shaved pudendum femininum ... and, well, Dawson proves game for the challenge. Which, all things considered, seems as eccentric as everything else in this wingnut narrative.

Nate, Dominic and Riz are nothing more than two-dimensional ciphers. Sapani, Cross and Sheikh do their best with thin material, and at times we get hints that these guys are supposed to be more than common street thugs ... but character depth never materializes.

Boyle’s Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire notwithstanding, we must remember that he also has made some spectacularly bad movies, as survivors of The Beach and Sunshine can attest. Trance has more in common with those lesser entries in his résumé.

Granted, some viewers out there — perhaps chemically enhanced — will marvel at this nonsense, much as they did with Inception, and depart the theater with excited shouts of “Boy, I never saw that coming.” I envy such credulity.

Most folks, however, will eye the exits and wonder if there’s a way to quietly leave the theater without being noticed by their companions.

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