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Simon (James McAvoy) is stuck in a trance.
Photo: Fox Searchlight

Directed by Danny Boyle
Rated R

Trance could be defined as the state of being lost between the bold and the bland.



In Trance, it’s not the story that’s particularly interesting; it’s how the story is told. Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, a story told in reverse, Trance begins with an art heist in London and an incident which causes Simon (James McAvoy, Wanted) to lose his memory. Then it’s a matter of backing up – while also moving forward – to put the puzzle pieces together and determine a couple intertwined things: Who Simon is and where he put a priceless painting by Goya.

Simon makes a couple observations in the early going that are interesting to consider come the movie’s end.

For one, he points out how it used to be possible to steal art without any weapons aside from a potent punch delivered by the fist. A fanciful black-and-white flashback captures such a brazen art heist executed right smack dab in the middle of an auction. Men stroll up to the podium, punch out the auctioneer, and walk off with a priceless work of art.

Simon also notes what should be fairly obvious: No painting is worth losing a life.

That setup, told in director Danny Boyle’s familiar style of quick cuts married to pumped-up musical beats, dangles the promise of a heady, intoxicating thriller that sets itself apart. Simon reminds the audience that grand masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Goya all have splendid works of art that will never be seen by the public because they were stolen in broad daylight.

In this case, the work of art that is the object of desire for several different hearts is Goya’s Witches in the Air.


As the setup begins to step back, while also skipping forward, it seems as though things are going to get mighty complicated. Simon falls in love with a hypnotist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson, Sin City). They begin an unethical romance; he loves her, but so does another man, Franck (Vincent Cassel, Black Swan), who comes into contact with her while in pursuit of the Goya Simon was supposed to deliver to him.

Let’s see. Simon works at an auction house, espousing the sanctity of art, then becomes – allegedly – complicit in an art heist. Makes sense, then, that a scandalous romance with his hypnotist therapist doesn’t set off any alarm bells of impropriety. As it turns out, Elizabeth wouldn’t mind having that Goya in her house, either.

Those characters and those plot points are thrown at the audience in rapid succession; there is a buzz of juicy complexity spiked with striking camera angles and vivid imagery. The temptation presents itself to begin a mental road map of characters and events in anticipation of an earthshattering conclusion.

Alas, the movie suffers from its own mental breakdown and the conclusion is anything but earthshattering. The ending really is right there, in the beginning, telegraphed to those paying attention to what is said and by whom.


That early buzz of creative excitement wears off after a while and as the movie grinds on, the heist becomes less and less interesting. More problematic, though: the characters also become less and less interesting.

In the end, Trance turns out to be nothing more than the kind of thriller that compensates for its lack of a compelling story with in-your-face shock value. There’s full frontal nudity, a shot-off head that – with brains exposed – continues to talk during a nightmare sequence, and blown-off male genitalia. Having built an impressive career featuring strong imagery and having been elevated to dizzying heights with Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, here Boyle steps back in time to an earlier point in his own career, revisiting the aggressive grittiness of Trainspotting.

The temptation is to call this a “bold and daring” movie by dint of the shock value. They are certainly “bold” roles for Dawson and McAvoy. But, really, it’s a boldness slapped onto something that is rather bland and pretty silly. And, unfortunately for Dawson and McAvoy, the characters aren’t worth remembering.

The movie derails when the shocks simply stop making any sense. A ridiculous climactic situation involving a rotting corpse in a car’s boot illustrates the problem. Three characters sit in this car without picking up a single whiff of the stench of death. It’s a gruesome scene when the boot is opened; maggots and flies (with that always needed buzz sound for extra impact) recall grisly Silence of the Lambs-style macabre. The morbidity almost covers for the absurdity.

It’s an ambitious cocktail of sex, hypnotism, and classical art studies. Bits and bobs are on display in paintings and in bedrooms. But none of it is enough to make one forget that movies work best when they appeal to the heart and the mind.

• Originally published at

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