Trance begins with a heist gone wrong. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 127 Hours) loves to explore different kinds of kicks, and in the slickly photographed opening sequence of Trance he revels in the depiction of what promises to be an inventively planned clean getaway—before throwing in the wrench and supplying a visceral jolt. The goods to be stolen aren’t jewels or currency but rather a great work of art: Goya’s Witches in the Air. Don’t let this give you the impression that Trance will have anything to do with the specifics of the art world, or art theft, or with art in general, or with anything that makes any sense or means anything. Boyle’s latest adrenaline-confection is hokum—extremely complicated hokum. Rarely does a story work this hard to be this dumb.
Franck (Vincent Cassel) leads the crew of crooks. Simon (James McAvoy), a gambling addict whose debts Franck took care of, is the inside man: he works for the auction house overseeing the Goya’s sale. During the heist Simon inexplicably Tasers Franck, Franck beats Simon senseless; somewhere along the way the Goya is lost. No one knows where it wound up, not even Simon, because he wakes up in hospital with amnesia. Franck orders Simon to visit Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a gorgeous hypnotherapist, presuming that she can unlock his busted memory. Elizabeth rapidly kens on to the fact that Simon’s in trouble, but rather than try to get him out of it she deals herself in: she’ll help the gang find the painting if she gets a cut. So everybody’s on the take, but, alas, nothing is as it seems. Yes, Trance is one of those movies where “nothing is as it seems,” which means that the plot is going to bend over backwards and characters are going to be turned inside-out so as to accommodate surprise at all costs.
For a little while it seems that Boyle, working from Joe Aheame and John Hodge’s script, is going for a blippy, pulsating new spin on Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but gradually things careen into a territory that owes more to the untrustworthy narrators of Jim Thompson novels. Which brings us to the film’s key deficiency, one even more problematic than the script itself. Dawson does her best with a ridiculous role and Cassel is actually quite fun as the ruthless villain who turns out to be the most sympathetic character of the lot—the film actually ends in such a way that he sort of becomes the protagonist. But McAvoy is way in over his injured head. The limp line-readings he gives to the more ploddingly cryptic bits in the opening voice-over (“…the event of a situation…”), the over-rehearsed cracks in his voice that say, “I’m nervous!”: he’s either without any colour or trying way too hard, and in the end, when the character’s full backstory is revealed, nothing in McAvoy’s boyish performance adds up to anything but a confusing mess. I feel somewhat bad about dumping all over McAvoy—he’s done well in certain naïve parts—but he’s badly miscast here, and makes one pine for the days when Boyle’s steady leading man was Ewan McGregor, an actor who can convey a much higher degree of genuine mischief.