In the late 90s, Danny Boyle directed two of John Hodge’s screenplays in a row that made them and their star Ewan McGregor famous. Trainspotting – the brilliant, disgusting, kaleidoscopic examination of a crew of Scottish heroin addicts – is better known, but Shallow Grave, a post-modern Hitchcock thriller about morally troubled Londoners, is just as good: Twisty and shocking and delightfully fun. I was pretty excited that, after 13 years, Boyle was directing a Hodge script again. And it’s a crime thriller, too! Trance is just as twisty and occasionally as fun and thrilling, but it’s a bit too shallow to reach the heights of Shallow Grave.
In the role that almost certainly was written with Ewan McGregor in mind, James McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who helps a group of thugs steal a $25 million Goya painting in a daring heist. He’s got gambling debts and not much of a moral center. Unfortunately, the crew’s leader Frank (Vincent Cassel) knocks him unconscious during the robbery and when Simon wakes up, he has forgotten that he stole the painting from the men he persuaded to steal it.
Even after being tortured, Simon cannot remember what he did with the painting. Franck suggests hypnosis. Simon goes to see a hypnotherapist, and even though Simon tries to mask his real intentions, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) figures out something is up. After she inserts herself into the gang, the crazy hypnotism begins. And how.
This all happens in the first 30 minutes, and I’ve already told you too much. The plot twists and alliance switching go on for another hour or so, and by the end, you’ll probably be unsure who you’re cheering for, which scenes were real and which were trances, and whether or not any of it makes sense. My hunch is that it all does, but I may need to see it again to be sure.
I am also unsure if the confusion is a flaw or a feature, but Doyle and Hodge have earned the benefit of the doubt. Hodge’s imagination is wide and marvelous, but using hypnotism to create multiple realities and the unsure footing needed to create great suspense is a tad too gimmicky. It’s like using multiple personality disorder or demon possession to explain away strange behaviors; it’s a ham-handed trick to avoid deeper characterization and more psychologically astute behaviors.
Boyle, whose directorial skills were dazzling in movies like Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours, doesn’t throw his bag of tricks at the audience. Even in his restraint, he plays with extreme colors, off-kilter angles, and explicit, surprising images. The latter works quite well in both torture and trance scenes, but, in concert with one of Hodge’s wackier ideas, it also provides the perviest plot-twist of the year. It works thematically, for sure, but, well, it’s just a bit too hairy for me. I’ll say no more.
Like Boyle and Hodge, the cast all does a good job but not their best work. I liked watching McAvoy go bad, and I think he may end up being a better anti-hero than a romantic lead (as he was in Atonement). But I kept imagining McGregor in the role and how much better, more resonant ,and sympathetic his acting is. Dawson is smooth, extraordinarily sexy, and plays the brainy femme fatale nicely, but most of her acting choices were obvious, borrowed from noir heroines on the 1980s. Cassel, whose appeal escapes me, is basically playing the same sexy creep he did so well in Black Swan. This time, he’s a thuggish club owner, not a ballet choreographer. (I’m sure some dancers would say the difference isn’t that great.) Boyle didn’t push any of the actors very hard, just as he didn’t push himself or Hodge. The movie is still great fun, even if it doesn’t stick with you like Boyle’s classics
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge
Starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel
At Landmark Hillcrest and ArcLight La Jolla