Opens Fri., April 12 at Guild 45th and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.
Hypnosis is a hoary old plot device at the movies. Add to that that Danny Boyle is here remaking an English TV movie from 2001, and Trance wouldn’t seem very promising. But the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire is always determined to be modern, abreast of the latest fads, and he packs this amnesiac crime tale with iPads, cell phones, slick images (by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), gunfire, Google searches, explosions, and full-frontal nudity. Hypnosis or no, we keep watching the enjoyably twisty Trance—always the case with Boyle’s nervy, propulsive tales, even when the material wears thin (see The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary). And if you get lost in the serpentine plot, fear not; the film is ultimately simpler than it seems.
The hypnotee, if we can call him that, is Simon (James McAvoy), who works in a posh London auction house. When a Goya goes on the block, he tells us, it could fetch 27 million pounds (about $41 million). But instead that painting is stolen in a brazen, well-planned art heist, despite the security Simon describes in such keen detail. His knowledge makes us suspicious, but Simon gets bashed on the head with a shotgun for trying to protect the Goya—surely he can’t be a bad guy, can he?
The hypnotist is Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), an American abroad, whom Simon picks at random on the Web for treatment. His problem is this: Simon may or may not be a bad guy, who possibly stole the painting himself or possibly double-crossed the thieves he was aiding. Either way, because of the brain injury (seen in a glowing PET scan), he can’t remember where he hid the Goya. It’s a very clever premise, compounded with themes of trust and betrayal. After trying to torture Simon, the thieves, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), have no choice but to try, with Elizabeth’s help, to hypnotize Simon into recalling the Goya’s location.
Boyle and his writers keep the surprises coming (and then some), though Trance boils down to a noir-ish love triangle among Simon, Elizabeth, and Franck. The Goya gradually recedes in importance; this is a story about not art but the tangled impulses of greed, love, and loyalty. In many ways, it’s an upscale cousin of Boyle’s 1994 Shallow Grave (whose screenwriter, John Hodge, here adapts Joe Ahearne’s original teleplay). Each of the three main players has their skin ripped back to reveal new personalities and agendas. Elizabeth (and Dawson) bares the most, which may seem exploitative to some.
I would argue, however, that women have the upper hand in Trance. In a film that constantly loops us back to question prior scenes (are they real or hypnotic states?), there’s a Russian-doll layering of veracity and hypnotic suggestion. (Hint: When someone gets shot, they may not be dead.) But Elizabeth is always the architect, planting bits of code among the dumb male thieves. She’s the queen, and they’re her drones. When the malevolently smiling Simon asks, “I have free will, don’t I?”, Boyle leaves the question unanswered. Do the miserable, confused figures in Goya’s Witches in the Air have any say in how they’re depicted? No. Only Goya pulls the strings. Or Elizabeth. Or Boyle.