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Non-Review Review: Trance

Trance is a dirty, messy little film. I’m not talking in terms of gore or graphic violence – although there is a surprising amount on display here. Instead, Trance feels like Danny Boyle is trying to get back in touch with his roots, the sort of stylishly shot, haphazardly structured and uncomfortably candid films from his earlier career. Boyle has, after all, gone from an underground auteur to a part of the cinematic establishment.

After all, we’re no longer talking about the director you constructed such grubby little pleasures as Shallow Grave or Trainspotting. Danny Boyle has an Oscar on his mantelpiece for Slumdog Millionaire, and a two nominations for 127 Hours. This is a man who organised and oversaw the London Olympics last year. You don’t get more legitimate or mainstream than that. Trance reads like an attempt by Boyle to prove that he hasn’t ventured too far away from his cinematic origins, and can still turn out a grubby little niche thriller starring a cast of sociopaths just waiting for an excuse to turn on one another.

Trance lacks the broad appeal of Slumdog Millionaire or even 127 Hours, but I’d be lying if I said I could resist its trashy pulpy charms. There’s a thrill here in watching the cinematic sleight of hand, observing as a veteran master of illusion proves he still can handle the old standards. It isn’t anything new or revolutionary, and there’s the constant threat that it might unravel at any given moment, but the thrill of Trance is watching Boyle trying to hold it all together. He doesn’t quite make it look effortless, but he gets there in the end.

It's a frame!

It’s a frame!

Twists are dangerous things. There’s a tendency to use them for the sake of using them, to provide momentum in a script that is rapidly losing energy. Used well, they can become iconic and haunting. However, there’s also the risk that they might become a crutch, pushing a movie into a short of holding pattern without any sense of forward momentum because everything is turning at right angles. Trance is built on twists. It tries to assure the audience that they don’t know what they think they know, even if that changed about thirty seconds ago.

The script to Trance isn’t as robustly constructed as something like, for example, Side Effects earlier this year. All stories rely on some element of coincidence, and the trick is in disguising it. The more contrivance you pile into your story, the harder the work to distract from it. The script to Trance doesn’t twist and turn so much as it writhes. As soon as it seems like anybody has a grip on what’s going on, the whole thing turns on its head and everybody tries to pick up the pieces and make it make sense.

Simon says...

Simon says…

I used the analogy of a magician earlier on, and Trance really does feel like a showcase for Boyle. The script itself isn’t especially ingenious. It’s only really remarkable in how stubbornly it refuses to lay its cards on the table or to commit to anything resembling a status quo for more than ten minutes. The trick is in pulling it off, in both convincing the audience to get on board with the thriller and in making sure that they don’t simply throw their hands up in the air and give up out of frustration.

I’d suggest that Boyle is constructing a house of cards here, but that doesn’t quite do Trance justice. Boyle isn’t aiming for anything especially lofty or beautiful. He wants something nasty, and uncertain, and quick. He’s not playing speed chess, he’s playing speed Jenga, and Trance sets him the challenge of moving all the pieces so quickly and so skilfully that the structure supporting them never has the opportunity to collapse under its own weight.

Red lighting...

Red lighting…

There are times when it comes close. I’m not going to spoil Trance for those who want to see it – if you are less concerned with structure than you are with craft, I wholeheartedly recommend it, and I recommend that you see it as blind as possible. However, the final reveal about how all the characters fit together – the “tie it all together” bit – winds up feeling just a little bit too convenient, a little bit too trite, and little bit too easy after everything that has happened. It’s the one point where even Boyle’s technique can’t quite hold it all in one piece.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. For one thing, Trance feels remarkably honest about its pulpy nature. It looks stylish, but the film never really tries to be anything more than an exciting twisty-turny thriller about bad people caught up in a heist that went wrong. There are some interesting ideas about identity, and how we forge identity based on a chain of memories – a chain that can be manipulated by ourselves and by others, at a cost.

Time for reflection...

Time for reflection…

“I have free will!” Simon protests towards the climax of the film, sounding like he’s trying to convince himself more than anybody else. “Don’t I?” he double-checks. Trance never hammers the theme too hard, and it’s a rather wonderful hook on which to hang this pseudo-psychological thriller. It gives the film just enough depth, but without weighing it down too much. Indeed, the film seems wryly skeptical about its own subject matter. “Amnesia is bullsh!t!” one character protests early on, when Simon tries to plead ignorance about the whereabouts of the stolen goods. “Everybody knows that amnesia is bullsh!t.”

It’s an interesting concept, and the movie pulls some interesting tricks about the identities of various players within the drama – not in a broader psychological sense, but also inside the story. The cast do an excellent job. McAvoy is fantastic as ever, playing the amnesic Simon. McAvoy has this wonderful ability to seem both incredibly charming, but also a little creepy, and Trance makes good use of him. Rosario Dawson continues to be an underrated actress, and she does some great work in a role that could easily have been quite troublesome. Vincent Cassel is also pretty fantastic, and it’s great to see the guy in anything.

I think Simon just spotted a plot hole...

I think Simon just spotted a plot hole…

Boyle has crafted a superbly stylish film here, and it looks fantastic – it’s the style of the thing that really holds it all together, the glue connecting the twists and reveals to one another. Rick Smith’s pounding score provides an effective atmosphere (along with a wonderfully crafted selection of external music), and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is beautiful and eerie at the same time. Special mention must be made of Jon Harris’ editing of the final cut. Even when the writing is muddled, the editing keeps the audience clued in to roughly what is going on.

I liked Trance. I liked it a lot. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I loved it, but I loved parts of it. The story and script are a bit of a mess, but the execution is top notch. Boyle seems to be trying to prove that he still has the energy that we associate with his earlier films, and it’s hard to disagree. Trance doesn’t necessarily measure up to the best of the director’s filmography, but that’s through no fault of his own. It’s well worth a look if you’re a viewer who appreciates a healthy dose of style, to the point where it is its own substance.

3 Responses

  1. I am pretty excited about this new Danny Boyle movie

  2. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    “Trashy, pulpy charms,” will guarantee a rental from us (and we’re kind of sorry we missed in theaters, too)!

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