The crime film is a tricky beast; there are no two ways about it. On the one hand, the plot needs to be appropriately twisty, surprising the audience at every bend. On the other, even past masters like Raymond Chandler have discovered the ease of disappearing down a rabbit hole and discovering too late that it hits no bottom.
It’s a problem Danny Boyle has fallen into, as well, in Trance.
Right off the bat, we’re introduced to Simon (James McAvoy) an auctioneer at a high-end, Sotheby’s-like firm, informing us of the difficulties of actually robbing a place like that. So it comes as no surprise when Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his boys actually do exactly that in the opening five minutes. What does come as a surprise is the painting they were after not being in the case they have stolen. In fact, it’s not anywhere, and the only person who may know where it is is Simon himself. If only he could remember what he’d done with it.
On the surface, it’s an excellent idea for a crime thriller, taking a Rashomon-like approach to keep the crime both in the past and front and center, making the characters themselves the scenes of the crime and the McGuffin.
As the robbers — and Simon — become increasingly desperate, they eventually hit on the idea of taking Simon to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to try and get him to relive the robbery and remember what he’d done with the object in question.
And then it gets complicated.
Boyle, of course, can do something like this in his sleep — it’s the perfect material (co-written, in fact, by longtime collaborator John Hodge, the pair’s first since A Life Less Ordinary) for him and his particularly kinetic style of storytelling. He’s not quite doing that, but somewhere along the way, the thread of the story is irrevocably lost.
At its heart, Trance is really about the tortured relationship between these three people, leaving the eternal question hanging of who is telling the truth and what does each of them really want. It would be great if it worked as well as it seems like it should. Unfortunately, some of the typecasting going on makes it very difficult to go along when the characters start to turn against type. Particularly Franck and Elizabeth — nothing works if the strength of their relationship isn’t quickly and easily believable. But there’s no way it can be, because Elizabeth is also the designated femme fatale, which means she must always be a mystery to everyone.
To an extent, you can just give up on that let Trance wash over you. Even if the script is not the best he’s worked with, Boyle knows how to put a story over, and Trance is no exception.
Or at least, it’s not right up until the climax, when everyone suddenly realizes nowhere near enough hints have been laid out to explain how this could possibly work, and Dawson has to bring the film to a screeching halt as she lays out a torrent of exposition to fill in all the remaining backstory. And even then, it doesn’t really do that, particularly as Simon’s constant hallucinations continue to make it difficult to decide if you really should believe what you see.
Complexity of character and motivation is good, and so is surprise, but there must be balance to everything. Rule number one of the director’s handbook should be, “if you cannot explain your story without a massive information dump at some point, it’s not working.”
Trance breaks that rule all over the place, and it shows. It’s fun-ish, but the same way a story needs a good beginning to draw you in, it needs a good ending to leave you satisfied. Trance will not leave you satisfied.
Cast: James McAvoy as Simon; Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth; Vincent Cassel as Franck; Tuppence Middleton as Young Woman.