The film that director Danny Boyle and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge probably want you to think about during “Trance” is “The Big Sleep.” Boyle’s neo-noir has the same slippery sense of narrative as the famously insoluble mystery at the center of that Bogart-Bacall classic, but the movie that you’ll probably be most reminded of is not the Howard Hawks film but Brian De Palma’s somewhat trashier “Femme Fatale.”
Art house auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) has gone to great lengths to help a group of gangsters led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) steal a Goya painting—but a blow to his head destroys his memory of screwing over Franck and company and hiding the painting. Unable to remember where or even why he’s stashed the canvas, Simon goes to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to recover his memories. But Elizabeth has an agenda all her own.
Even at its most expository, the movie’s level of giddy tension never flags—and there is almost as much exposition as there is abrupt editing. Few glossy thrillers have made the art of editing so palpable, constantly reminding viewers that whole swaths of these characters’ lives are being lived in the moments between scenes and clues are probably strewn throughout that missing footage. As with “Femme Fatale,” one simply sits back for the ride and hopes that things will eventually be cleared up. And as with “Femme Fatale,” the sum of “Trance” is less than its parts.
The two male leads can’t be blamed. Cassel can play sexy-menacing in his sleep, but he ambitiously works harder at Franck than the movie possibly deserves, giving us a slight variation on the usual sophisticated sadist. And McAvoy’s boyishness here is used to disguise something darker, an off-kilter aspect to what seems on the surface to be a charming guy in over his head. But the central triangle is left wobbly with the casting of Dawson. Unable to shade her line readings with multiple layers, Dawson roots her performance in her hair. With it pulled severely back, she’s a no-nonsense professional. Tresses falling loosely over her shoulders makes Elizabeth a femme fatale. Dawson should be commended for participating in a shockingly gratuitous act of full-frontal nudity (her male co-stars, though also nude, never go the full monty), but those scenes will be all that viewers remember of her turn. Which is to say that “Trance” is most assuredly not Dawson’s “Basic Instinct” breakout.
Critic’s Score: B
Directed by Danny Boyle
Cast by Gail Stevens, Donna Isaacson
Starring James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson