Trance (review)

I feel like I am becoming that "jaded about fun movies" film critic guy. One of my best friends in the entire world (and proprietor of Earnest Farms) Ben recommended director Danny Boyle's newest film Trance (2013) to me and I didn't even have the common courtesy to enjoy it. This movie reminded me a lot of Now You See Me* (2013) in that it's basically your average gimmicky thriller-of-the-month. The gimmick du jour is hypnotherapy and as such requires a small amount more suspension of disbelief than Louis Letterier's magician flick. While it was fun to watch for the most part, I don't think I'll be revisiting it anytime soon. Trance isn't a bad movie, it's just not a very good one.

Writing a brief synopsis for this movie is much more difficult than I'd like to admit and (hopefully) not because I'm bad at watching movies. There are simply a lot of twists that dramatically change the trajectory of the narrative (by relocating its beginning, for example) and while the end arguably clarifies the situation, it felt more like just another twist to me. Then there's the issue of explaining enough to give you a picture of the movie & what watching it is like without revealing too much. With that said, here's my best effort.

Simon (James McAvoy) is a charismatic bouncer-sorta-dude at a company that auctions expensive paintings. Part of his job is, in the event of a robbery, to quickly take the painting from the auction to a safe place. The problem is that Simon is also a robber working for Frank (Vincent Cassel), a European soccer-watching gangster. So they steal an expensive painting without too much trouble except for the fact that when Christmas morning comes and they get to unwrap their present, there's nothing inside. Apparently Simon removed the painting from the safe/carrying case thing without anyone else noticing. Unfortunately while they were stealing it Frank whacked him on the head and now he doesn't remember where he put it, so they go to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to try to get him to remember. But Elizabeth is more than either Simon or Frank could have imagined.

Wouldn't cutting out the painting drastically devalue it?

One thing is hard to deny about Trance: it certainly is stylish (any movie that can make a shot of highways look cool is doing something right). The movie is very colorful in all the right ways and uses this to convey mood and atmosphere. The soundtrack is also very well done and works to keep the adrenaline-filled action filled with adrenaline. I loved that the movie featured a strong woman of color willing to stand up for herself even if she's slightly demonized. James McAvoy is also wonderful in his part and Vincent Cassel plays an effective antagonist. And the thing is, for some people, people who aren't dumb or bad at watching movies or whatever, this will be enough. Danny Boyle is no amateur and certainly knows how to make a solid movie at this point. I, however, do not foresee myself rewatching this film anytime soon.

Something bothers me about these formulaic You Don't Know What's Really Going On Until The Director Tells You movies. Maybe it's not the genre itself (I certainly enjoyed Side Effects*), but there were so many twists in this movie, and some of them so stereotypical in nature (e.g. It Was All A Dream cliche), that by the end of the movie when the final twist came it didn't feel genuine. Instead of feeling relief that I finally have the true version of events, I became aware more than anything else of the fact that Danny Boyle was stringing me along thinking, "Gosh, aren't I so clever?"

A bigger problem with these movies is that they tend to engage with deep & interesting issues and then fail to deliver the promised goods. Now You See Me dealt with the nature of perception and reality as well as the role and function of law enforcement, but ended up with nothing to say. Trance, in its turn, brushes past possible discussions about memory and its relationship with identity, the influence of fantasy upon reality, the ethics of the mob, and even the importance of art without ever painting more than just a pretty picture. These movies use compelling ideas as the background for their narrative without ever directly engaging with them, and as a audience member interested in thematics this is rather frustrating.

Funky Mirror Reflects Conflicted Conscience cliche.

The biggest disappointment for me was the way Trance dealt with art. It opens with a promising quotation from James McAvoy: "No piece of art is worth a human life." But before you can decide whether to agree or disagree the film drops the issue entirely. What's worse, the movie turns the interest in art into a personality quirk, a fetish for James McAvoy's character. You see, his love of art leads him to the belief that perfection in female form can only be achieved by women shaving their lady-parts. There's even a full frontal shot of Rosario Dawson after she does it. Not only is this wildly unnecessary, it's perverting (both literally and figuratively) what could have been a cool theme. So, thanks for that Danny Boyle. You had to get a shot of Dawson naked. Will you just make 28 Months Later already?

(Not a bad movie but certainly not a good one.)

*Further Reading: my review of Now You See Me for another mediocre gimmicky thriller and my review of Side Effects for an example of the genre done right.


  1. Well, I personally thought that naked shot was fantastic! But as you say, the movie isn't worth seeing twice, even though it's somewhat difficult to follow, leading to the assumption it was made to be viewed twice. I'm not inclined. I thought the movie was trying real hard to confuse and I wasn't really confused. Definitely in the same league as 'Now You See Me' but more enjoyable and sensible.

    1. Yeah I just felt like that shot was the ultimate in both objectification and putting a woman on a pedestal since it makes her into a piece of art in a movie with no appreciation for art, but I can see how I might be wrong about that. Agree with you 100% about the movie trying too hard to be confusing & about it being in the same league as Now You See Me albeit slightly more enjoyable.


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