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Even a flawed premise can be swept away by real moral quandaries, sparkling dialogue, charismatic actors, and characters we actually care about. In last year's science fiction thriller, Looper, Bruce Willis's character disposed of the logical holes in the film's subject— time travel— by remarking, "Don't ask me to explain time travel or we'll be sitting at the table making diagrams from drinking straws."
Unfortunately, Danny Boyle's new alleged thriller, Trance, is just as convoluted as Looper but offers none of the above-mentioned perks. It rests on a premise even sillier than time travel, but Trance's characters are empty, the dialogue banal, and the undertaking emotionless (unless exhaustion counts as emotion). The best movies stick with you the next day, but I couldn't even be bothered to Google Trance.
Trance begins promisingly enough: James McAvoy, as an art auctioneer, delivers a charming opening monologue about the recent history of art theft. As McAvoy explains, it used to be easy to rob priceless paintings from art auctions, but these days the dealers utilize such deterrents as vans full of Ukrainian mercenaries. Criminals being criminals, they try anyway, and Vincent Cassel (who's the best part of this movie) leads a cunning raid and makes off with Francisco Goya's 1798 painting, Witches in the Air.
But all is not as it seems. The effortless heist results in a Goya-free suitcase. Cassel is understandably upset and blames McAvoy, who was the thieves' inside man. Due to a sharp blow to the head, the hapless auctioneer can't recall the whereabouts of the painting he seems to have stolen from the gang. After a brief torture session, Cassel decides to retain the services of a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to pry the memory from the auctioneer's amnesia.
Weird stuff in the closet
At this point Trance asks you to suspend your disbelief and accept not only that that hypnotism works, but that it's basically the sort of superpower enjoyed by some of the more powerful X-Men. As Dawson's hypnotist character delves into the subconscious of McAvoy and his associates, we are treated to a parade of distorted, fantastical images, nightmarish hellscapes and horrific violence. But Boyle seems to lack a purpose for showing us this dizzying array. It's as if he had a bunch of weird stuff in his closet and needed a story to hang it on.
Mind control by hypnosis is a breathtakingly silly idea and the movie's bizarre imagery is its only attempt to seduce us into forgetting that fact. In Trainspotting (1996), Boyle effectively forged emotional bonds with the audience in the midst of a psychedelic barrage. But in the absence of a logical plot or characters we care about, Trance becomes simply a manipulative puzzle, decorated with trippy imagery. Suspension of disbelief is all well and good— but only for a movie that actually earns it.
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