The problem with psychological thrillers is that they so often fail to appreciate the ways in which psychology is inherently thrilling, and how all thrillers are inherently psychological. To sidestep this problem by way of confronting it directly, a sub-genre of films naturally emerged in which psychology is not only used as a means of driving the plot, but also as its vehicle, exploring the mind by way of actually setting a film in one. This, naturally, is a demented challenge unto itself, as even those notable movies which were successfully able to conflate the inner-workings of the human brain with the demands of narrative storytelling (“Inception” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” being the two most obvious examples from recent years), work because they expound upon how we feel by having fun with how we think, which is the opposite tact of most narrative fiction.
Unfortunately, when movies that literally delve into the folds of the human brain forget either part of the equation, they often prove that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and it can be an even worse place to visit. With that in mind (lame pun pathetically intended), Danny Boyle’s “Trance” finds this strange sub-genre at its worst. An insufferable cross between “Inception” and the twisty heist noirs of Jean-Pierre Melville, “Trance” is a shapelessly propulsive mess of pop psychology and poor drama, as laughably pseudo-scientific as Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” but with none of that film’s clear human charm.
“If memory serves,” is how the saying goes, and “Trance” is a movie about identifying its master. We begin with a Goya painting (“Witches in the Air,” to be precise), which will inevitably prove to be the height of the film’s artistry (talk about setting a needlessly high bar for yourself; it’s like Jay Leno using Richard Pryor as a warmup comic). Goya’s eerie imagery is a too-perfect fit for this muddled story of psychic manipulation, more evocatively articulating a haunted sense of suggestion in one still image than Boyle does in the 101 restless minutes that he has at his disposal. Perhaps, then, it’s appropriate that the “Witches in the Air” is stolen during the film’s overcomplicated opening sequence, in which a fine art auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy, whose smarmy voiceover channels the horrors of “Wanted”), lays out the procedures by which he and his coworkers are to protect their enormously valuable paintings in the event of an attempted robbery.
Naturally, Simon’s auction house is promptly robbed. Franck (Vincent Cassel, and yes, it’s spelled “Franck”) and his merry gang of thugs bust in under cover of smoke grenades, and Simon immediately rolls up the canvas and tries to shove it down the emergency chute. Franck catches up with Simon at the last possible moment, conks him on the head with the butt of his giant shotgun and then makes off with the masterwork (valued at nearly $30 million). Except, we soon learn that Franck only thought he had the painting in his possession, and Simon – who’s in cahoots with the thieves – can’t remember where he hid it, on account of the fact that he was conked in the head with a giant shotgun.
Desperate to locate the information that he’s convinced still resides somewhere within Simon’s thick skull, Franck forces his stooge to visit Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), the sexiest hypnotherapist in all of London, and perhaps the only person qualified to plumb the depths of Simon’s subconscious and retrieve the vital information. And that’s when things go off the rails of this narrative that’s ultimately as much about a painting as “The Maltese Falcon” is about a statue.
Elizabeth’s motives for becoming involved are as unclear as her techniques, and Boyle is so eager to play around in Simon’s mind that he fails to provide an adequate foundation for the fun he has once he begins the brain-dive. Working from a script by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (a second attempt at a story that originally aired as a British TV movie), Boyle is enabled to indulge in all of his most frenetic tics and tendencies, unencumbered by the insidious forces of “logic” and “location” that prevented “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours” from entirely submitting to the banality of Boyle’s hyper-maximalist aesthetic hedonism. Boyle’s unwillingness to become stagnant is admirable, but his digital frenzy found its ideal home right off the bat in 2002’s “28 Days Later,” in which the rudimentary technology perfectly complimented the film’s end times unease.
Here – re-teaming with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who rose to prominence in the world of Dogme 95 and has worked on all of Boyle’s features since the digital revolution except for “Sunshine” – it seems like Boyle is more interested in how he can mess with the image than he is in what it’s revealing, an approach that capably (if obviously) illustrates the fragmentation of Simon’s mind, but fatally fails to articulate the shifting power dynamics at the throbbing heart of this plot mash.
Ultimately, amidst all of the shot refractions, strange asides about Elizabeths’ pubic hair, and the iPad that’s found in someone’s mind (I don’t even know), “Trance” is at its best when calms itself enough to focus on the psychic manipulations that steer drive the bizarre love triangle between Simon, Franck and Elizabeth. Simon is a hopelessly dull protagonist, but the film’s greatest coup is in how it plays with the idea that this might not actually be his story. Franck and Elizabeth aren’t trying to find a painting so much as they’re vying for the lead role in a picture, and the various means by which they try and play one another would be interesting if they weren’t muddled into sensationalistic nonsense, climaxing with an action sequence that’s only legitimate bearing on human psychology is how it reflects Danny Boyle’s desire to drive a flaming car off a pier.
Forgettably scored by Underworld’s Rick Smith (“Beaucoup Fish” for life, y’all), “Trance” doesn’t just share the name of a musical genre, but also its defining qualities; the highly suggestible (a percentage of the population that Boyle refers to as “virtuosos”) are seduced by its rhythms, while the rest of us are forced to endure an endless drone of flashing lights and thumping bass. This time, the synapses just didn’t click. No piece of art is worth a human life,” Simon tells us. “Trance” isn’t even worth 101 minutes of one. Danny Boyle will be back, but here’s hoping the song doesn’t remain the same.
SCORE: 3.5 / 10