“The only reason for time,” Einstein said, “is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Danny Boyle cited that quote this week when introducing his new movie, Trance, to a Manhattan audience. In this sexy, twisty neo-noir, time keeps folding back on itself in a origami sculpture that lures you into guessing whether the scene you’re watching is a memory, a fantasy or that Ponzi scheme known as reality. The film’s three main characters endure or inflict more pain than the James Franco hiker suffered in Boyle’s 127 Hours, and the time trips make the flashback structure of his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire seem timid by comparison. A devious mind game, Trance is also the most entertaining smart movie so far this year.
Art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) helps pull off the theft of Goya’s Witches in the Air, worth millions, from his own London auction house. His partner in the caper, the nightclub-owning criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel), discovers too late that the package he escaped with contains only the frame, not the painting. Simon must have it, but he doesn’t know where it is, because in a scuffle during the heist, Simon got cracked in the head, giving him an instant case of amnesia. Franck’s trio of henchmen tries torture, including a violent manicure that we’ll call a mani-pull, and still Simon’s recollection stays hidden. Perhaps only Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a Harley Street hypnotherapist, can unlock the memory bank. Locating the painting is truly an inside job.
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Keys to Simon’s past are scattered deep in his mind like the toys in a child’s messy room. Elizabeth leads him on an interior tour of the Gallery of Lost Masterpieces; can he locate the Goya? He thinks he remembers slipping out of the auction house, with the painting concealed under his shirt, and running smack into a red Alfa Romeo, whose pretty driver (Tuppence Middleton) helped him — or was the driver actually Elizabeth? As this sinfully attractive shrink probes Simon’s mind, he wants to probe her; but is she falling for Franck? Simon imagines a chat with Franck, whose head has been blown off above the nose. That’s a dream, right? And if Simon shoots a man whose silhouette is visible behind a smoky glass wall, does the guy really die?
In the Goya painting (which is, in fact, on display in Madrid’s Prado Museum), three sinewy men in heretics’ hats float in the air, holding and devouring a fourth man; beneath them, one caped creature cowers, while another curls up at the side of the road. In Trance, the caped man could be Franck, directing his three goon-witches to torture the victim Simon, and the curled figure is perhaps Elizabeth. That’s just one interpretation of a devious story that plays out like a chess match, whose goal is to get back to the opening move and, for the first time, understand it. Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Boyle’s film dives into murky pools of the mind; like Nolan’s Inception, it pulls a heist inside the brain, but this time with the owner’s permission. And if you’re reminded of the 1966 art-theft comedy How to Steal a Million, with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, you’re not far off. This is How to Steal a Memory.
(READ: Corliss’s take on Inception)
Trance began as a 2001 Brit TV movie written by Joe Ahearne, whose strolls on the dark side of the mind also led him to the exorcism miniseries Apparitions and the vampire-infused Ultraviolet. John Hodge, who wrote Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, the films that announced the arrival of Boyle, Hodge and star Ewan McGregor, came aboard for the Trance film version. Liberated for the moment from the inspirational texts of his last two movies, Slumdog and 127 Hours, Boyle returns with gusto to the cool-crime motifs of his first two. He has the try-anything directorial style of Richard Lester, who made the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the wit to make all the plates spin — and, possibly, make narrative sense. If you don’t find Trance an invigorating watch, see your eye doctor.
Credit much of the movie’s seductive swankness to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with Boyle on 28 Days Later…, Slumdog and 127 Hours. A Baudelaire of film imagery, Dod Mantle finds visual correlatives for the story by defining essences in terms of surfaces: mirrors in mirrors, reflections and distortions, seen underwater or from above. (A complex highway cloverleaf shown from a God’s-eye view looks like a med-school model of a brain with the cranium removed.) Boyle says that in Trance he’s “playing with the characters as they come in and out of focus”; Dod Mantle’s artistry swathes them in sumptuous, treacherous colors — starting, of course, with red — as they emerge from or recede into the shadows of Simon’s mind and Franck’s and Elizabeth’s emotions.
For added intrigue in this labyrinthine London thriller, Boyle enlisted stars from three different countries: McAvoy the Scot, Cassel the Frenchman and Dawson the American. Schooled by his stint in Wanted with Angelina Jolie in playing soft men who meet strong, mysterious women, McAvoy seizes the audience’s sympathy and runs circles around it. Cassel, the gunman with a weak or crazy streak in Eastern Promises and the Mesrine movies, gives Franck a hoodlum charm to balance his sadism and avarice. He also gets to make movie love to Dawson, who, in Trance’s art-history context, may be called classically statuesque. In films since the 1995 Kids, she got to sing in the movie of Rent and have a candlelight dinner with Will Smith in Seven Pounds, but her roles have often been ornamental (briefly canoodling with Colin Farrell in Alexander). This time, Dawson fills her dramatic and erotic potential as a woman of intelligence and strength. Hollywood, watch Trance, and hire her.
Trance isn’t a searing moral or political tract; it won’t teach its viewers to be better people; it means nothing beyond the Mobius-strip movement of its plot and the luster of attractive people intertwined in deceit. The film, as Boyle said the evening of the preview, “is just fun.” And on its own terms — which ought to be yours — it’s entrancing.