The pocket watch is mightier than the magnum.
Trance is a fantastic art film, a mesmerizing and fascinating thriller that uses twists, turns, hallucinations, and narrow corridors as its tools to build suspense, and dialogue and performances to form sympathy for its characters. Its surreal, twisted, strange, nonlinear, and non-conventional, but to dust with conventionality. This is a great picture.
As the film fades in, we are introduced to Simon Newton (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer who takes us through the ropes of what his job entails. He tells us of the extensive steps it takes to reserve a painting, the protocols his employers tell him to do when putting a painting up for auction and what steps he must take if a robbery takes place. Their most valuable item is a painting by Francisco Goya called “Witches In The Air”, and his employers gave him precise instructions on how to preserve the painting if thieves do happen to come into the auction in an attempt to steal it.
Sure enough, thieves break into the auction and attempt to steal the painting. This troop is lead by one named Franck (Vincent Cassel), and he is determined and headstrong into getting that painting. Right before Simon puts the painting away, however, Franck cuts him off, a brief struggle happens between them, and Simon is knocked out, with Franck leaving with the stolen painting in tow.
When Simon wakes up, he realizes he lost his memory from the past two weeks. When he’s finally released from the hospital, Franck pays him an unwelcome visit. Turns out, all that Franck got on the day of the heist was just the frame of the painting, whereas the real article itself was transported to an alternative location. Torturing him by peeling back his fingernails, Franck comes to find out Simon truthfully does not remember where he put the painting. So he tries a different method of extracting information, one that involves psychology and hypnotherapy at the hands of one named Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). Together, they attempt to probe Simon’s mind, and begin their search for the painting Simon has kept hidden from them.
Here is a film that knows what it wants, a movie that knows its characters, their motivations, its story, and precisely how to tell it. Director Danny Boyle, who is nearly a master at experimental cinema (if you don’t believe me, look at his hallucination sequences in Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours) does something very rare here: he intertwines and meshes characteristics of a narrative film with that of art and experimental cinema, making a truly absorbing, gripping, and fascinating experience.
Let me make something clear here, however: I hate experimental cinema. Nine times out of ten they don’t make any sense, they seem relevant only to those making them, and they elicit a confused response rather than an emotional one from its audience. Here though, the result is much different. Everything is crystal-clear and fluid, the visuals dynamic and expressive, the editing cut together neatly and crisply. It’s like a mind game of cat-and-mouse, except the cat is willing to seek out help and the mouse is more lethal than both cats are lead to believe.
Oh believe me, my attention was unadverted throughout the entire picture. While I didn’t understand everything immediately in the film, I understood what I needed to in the moment and the plot filled in the rest for me as time went on. And what did I understand, more than anything else? That these are sinful characters, decrepit criminals that lie, cheat, and connive their way to success and to financial gain. Cassel was aggressive and talented as Franck, and while his character was despicable and loathsome at first, a softer side of him was later revealed so that the audience could come to terms with his character. Dawson is as beautiful and motivated as ever, and while she too was at first a sympathetic figure, she later reveals a darker side to her character that even I didn’t expect. I’m not even going to go into James McAvoy. His performance was so specific and so wide-ranged that I was compelled to care for his character while at the same time hating him.
And yes, in case you didn’t pick up on it, the movie is deserving in its R rating. It is violent, bloody, disturbing, graphic, and it has its vast share of nudity and sexuality, with some of the violence and sex combining in many gruesome scenes. If this were any other picture, I would take off points for that. But like Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver, Trance is a film that uses its bleak content as a tool to tell a story and define character, to show an encompassing yet tragic story of three fatally flawed individuals who will torture, manipulate, and kill to get whatever they want. You have to watch a movie like this long enough to realize the point when it stops being a thriller and starts forming into something greater: when it starts forming into art.