Danny Boyle’s films tend to land somewhere on a sliding scale between buoyancy tinged with menace and menace tinged with buoyancy. Trance, which features rough violence straight out of genre fare like 28 Days Later, and eventual uplift somewhat akin to that of Slumdog Millionaire, proves especially hard to place on the auteur’s tonal meter. Back in cahoots with producer Christian Colson and DP Anthony Dod Mantle, as well as his early go-to screenwriter, John Hodge, Boyle suggests he’s hit something of a professional culmination, surrounding himself with past and present collaborators, and releasing a flood of sensibilities that, for him, are also old and new. Here, you get that orange-heavy palette and those quasi-fish-eye views, but also hard-R elements largely unbuffered by any modern Boylean polish. You get trippy uncertainty as warped as the misadventures of the Trainspotting crew, but also that familiarly rhythmic, pulsating glee, which almost seems present just to keep your psyche safe. One of the finer examples of Boyle’s aptitude for melding grit and gleam, Trance contains within it so much of its uniquely fantastical director, and that’s just one reason why it’s such an entertaining sit.
As the title offhandedly suggests, this cyberpunkish heist flick is, in true Boyle fashion, very musically driven, laced with a booming electronica score by Underworld’s Rick Smith. The movie’s preface is the cool manifesto of Simon (James McAvoy), a London art auctioneer who walks the viewer through his professional procedures before a robbery—and Smith’s synth bass—forcefully commence, setting a mood that remains knowingly fun and unnerving for the next 90 minutes. Before it’s learned that Simon is actually in on the job, he’s seen ushering Francisco Goya’s “Witches in the Air”—valued at 25 million pounds—to safety, only to be intercepted and clocked in the head by Franck (Vincent Cassel), an apparently random thug who’s in fact Simon’s cohort. Boyle proceeds to express his own musicality as a filmmaker, leaping forward to introduce hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in quick montage and maintaining breathless fluidity even when breaking from his established players (whom he spends much time regarding with his frame askew, as if whimsically nodding to the “crooked” crooks of the old Batman TV serial). Elizabeth is hired to tap into Simon’s memories, as that blow to the skull left him unsure of the painting’s whereabouts, and Boyle continues to film the group like a DJ with a camera, sometimes literally spinning it to the point that neon signs—like that of Franck’s ironically named club, Analog London—leave trails that float like smoke.
An art-world adventure like no other (think The Thomas Crown Affair in a pressure cooker with a strobe light), Trance gives Boyle yet another canvas on which he can paint, the hypnosis scenes stepping in for a child’s imaginings in Millions, or a hiker’s delusions in 127 Hours, as that which takes the reins off of logic and breaks the bonds of stylistic restraint. Everything looks good through Boyle’s hyperactive lens, including garbage bags and weather-worn rooftops, and as the line between what’s real and what’s not increasingly blurs, the filmmaker delivers some of his most gratifyingly gonzo stuff in years. As Trance’s second act digs ever deeper, it reaches a place of hugely compelling ambiguity, where mirrored images reflect the alternating circumstances within, and characters start punking one another in a braided act of who’s-conning-who? Woven in are things as seemingly tasteless as they are aesthetically essential, like a half-shot-off talking head that’s a comically direct Cronenberg homage, and an extremely crucial shaved vagina (what’s more, “Strawberry,” Simon’s safe word to emerge from hypnosis, may as well be considered Boyle’s “Rosebud”).
It’s all provocatively kooky, and ample spoilers forbid ample explanation, but Trance also draws out Boyle’s less dazzling commercial side, not to mention his penchant for whirling excess. As the film begins spiraling toward its (very talky) resolution, the weirdo wonder of the central chunk gets partially dismantled, edged out by an occasionally self-defeating glut of mach-five effects, and chatter too catered to the please-explain-it-all crowd. It’s the point at which Trance really shows the debt it owes to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and that’s before a familiar last shot that teeters on a razor’s edge. Still, while Dawson gets saddled with Ellen Page duties as the talking instruction manual, the gorgeous, undervalued actress rarely gets roles this interesting, and she and McAvoy are both fantastic. Boyle, to his credit, repeatedly offsets the twisty, expository problems with beauty and brutality, each of which has its impactful place, whether offering aerial views of circuitous highways or the indelible shot of a strangled woman. Both outré and overwrought, Trance isn’t one of the great techno thrillers, but it’s close.