Thursday, 28 January 2016

Trance (2013) - Movie Review

It’s time to continue to put further effort into these reviews than is really advisable as I look back into another director’s work who has a new release coming out soon. This time around, it’s Danny Boyle, a man is kind of frustratingly difficult to pin down in terms of an overall style. He has a very kitchen sink approach to his craft, something usually reserved for filmmakers on substantially tinier budgets: If it looks cool, use it! Not to say that he doesn’t come up with some amazing visual ideas for his films, like the absolute grime of Trainspotting, the video camera stock that almost looks like a TV news reel in 28 Days Later or even the hectic video game aesthetic adopted for certain scenes in The Beach. It’s just that the man just has so many ideas for how to present a story on film that it’s hard to pin down if he's a true original or just derivative; he’s like Ant from Atmosphere. Still, considering this is the same guy who gave us not only one of the best zombie films of all time but also easily one of the better Christian-oriented films with Millions, you’re usually gonna get quality work from the guy. Usually.

The plot: Art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) gets mixed up with a group of art thieves lead by Franck (Vincent Cassel) after an attempted robbery of a valuable painting goes awry, one that Simon was meant to help push through. As a result, the painting has gone missing and Simon, the only person with any knowledge about where it is, has completely forgotten its location. To assist them in this effort, they enlist the help of hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to tap into his subconscious to get the information they need.

In the releases just prior to this film, Boyle had started to fully embrace his position as a more prestige director, delivering such lauded works as Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. However, this time around, it seems like he had a sudden want to go back to his roots: He brought in his old collaborator John Hodge, whom he last worked with over a decade earlier with The Beach, and got McAvoy as his lead who is pretty much a younger version of former Boyle go-to actor Ewan McGregor. He also seems to have gone back to his recklessly stylistic approach, as opposed to the weird-way point he previously occupied between that and the traditional Oscar crowd-pleasers. As such, this is a very slick looking film that has a real fixation on lens flares and technicolor lighting. Given how we’re dealing with a film that deals with hypnotherapy and screwing with people’s memories, this does give a sufficient, for lack of a better term, trance-like quality to the film that at least fits the tone of the film.

This script, originally written by Joe Ahearne, has been kicking around the Boyle camp since the days of Shallow Grave, being turned into a TV movie in 2001 and then getting doctored by Hodge to be made into a feature film with Boyle as was first intended. Just so we’re clear, that means that this is a psychological thriller from the mid-90’s… oh my word, does it feel like a relic of the era. Don’t get me wrong, the film has a definitely promising start with an intriguing premise and some good possibilities for psycho-drama. This is helped by McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel doing very well in their roles: McAvoy feels like a mental Rubix cube that could blow up once it’s solved, Cassel goes beyond just being your standard hardened British gangster and actually shows some real humanity to him and Dawson is good at the numerous chess pieces that she ends up assuming as the film carries on.

Unfortunately, once the second act kicks in, the cracks in the film’s understanding of human psychology start to show and only widen the further they go. We end up getting a love triangle between the three main characters, the explanations for which don’t add up in terms of how McAvoy fits into all of it. Without getting into spoiler territory too heavily, I’ll just say that the initial realisation of this requires a basic misunderstanding of how reverse psychology works. This isn’t helped by how the film only ends up being proved correct by its own logic later on, which is not how smart film made. It’s also kind of confounding that, in a film all about hypnosis and the power of mental suggestion, the film doesn’t acknowledge one of the most crucial aspects of the practice: Susceptibility. In order for any form of hypnosis to work, the recipient has to be open to the idea of suggestion; it’s the main reason why stage hypnotists ask for open volunteers for their act. Here, again without getting too explicit with spoilers, all of these suggestions made on behalf of others don’t make sense because there is no way that these characters would agree to them. Okay, tell a lie, there is one scene where this is shown when the art thieves are put under a trance and only one of them actually feels the effects of it while the others just giggle their way through it. Would’ve been nice when it wasn’t just ignored for the rest of the film, though.

More so than its retro attitudes to psycho-drama, where this film really drops the ball is in its approach to psycho-thrills. I specified the beginning of the second act earlier because that is when the first of the many, many plot twists are introduced; once they start, they never cease for the rest of the film. Much like Before I Go To Sleep, the story is too focused on throwing off the audience and not focused enough on making coherent sense as a story. What makes this even worse is that it’s even along the same lines as BIGTS in terms of its twists: It keeps going back and forth in terms of which character has what motive, to the point where the film has pretty much shown every conceivable result but won’t tell the audience which one is the “right” one until the very end. It’s like reading a choose your own adventure book from cover to cover in page order; you’ll see every possible outcome, but that doesn’t mean it will make narrative sense. This is also helped by how, after a while, you start to anticipate what would normally be stupid plot decisions once you realise that this film isn’t all that smart to begin with. For all of its attempts to erratically shift the plot’s gears to keep the audience on their toes, there is a definite pattern to its actions which make the surprises hit with less and less impact as they come.

All in all, while I definitely give credit for the production design, the direction and the effort made by the cast, this so-called ‘thriller’ relies so heavily on the same bag of tricks that, before too long, it stops being shocking and starts to become a little suspicious. It doesn’t help that it progressively gets sillier and sillier, leading up to a finale that would probably be laughed at even during the 80’s-90’s when this brand of psychological film was starting to make its mark. I wouldn’t call this the absolute weakest of Boyle’s filmography, as this still has more of a head on its shoulders than A Life Less Ordinary, but it is a far cry from the man’s best.

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