“Inside the mind. Outside the law” – The tagline of Trance invites comparison to Chris Nolan’s recent sci-fi blockbuster Inception, and with good reason. Danny Boyle’s tenth feature delves into the psyche of art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) and uncovers more than a jumble of jigsaw pieces in need of assembling. Simon’s debt to mobster Franck (Vincent Cassel) leads him to the door of hypnotherapist Elisabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), whom he tasks to search through the intricacies of his memories and uncover the location of a missing painting. The rules of the game change time and again throughout this foray, keeping the audience guessing up until the climactic third act where every minute detail is explained. For a film primarily concerned with the ambiguity of memory, its plot is largely forgettable but made bearable by a talented cast – chief among them the mesmerising Dawson – placed in preposterous situations.
Trance fancies itself as both a thriller and a piece of intelligent art – which isn’t to say that the two are mutually exclusive entities. In much the same vein as Inception, this feature, ideally, ‘makes you think deeper’ as you simultaneously delight in explosions and throat-slashing. This confused dichotomy justifies an unhealthy amount of experimentation on the part of both Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. At one point, McAvoy’s character leaps onto the edge of a rooftop and teeters over the drop. We cut to a camera fixed on his shoulder, shutter speed adjusted, displaying his endangered perception of this brief moment. But what good is it for? Superfluous effects like these are many and varied throughout, and through persistent regularity they become damagingly obtrusive.
The late Tony Scott (hard to believe I’m still saying that) was often (wrongly) accused by his detractors of creating his films in the editing room. Our eyes carry at blistering pace through his thousands upon thousands of shots, super-saturated frames at multiple angles and with cameras swinging on their axis for the barest of moments. But Scott was a master of abstraction; he constructed an absorbing, kinetic narrative through the breakdown of physical space and time into a collage of wonderfully colourful imagery. Boyle is far less consistent in this regard. Whereas Scott’s cinema can be termed as restless, or indeed reckless, in a good way, Boyle’s cinema is the flipside of these otherwise positive descriptors. Most of his stylised shots look as though they were executed on the whim with little regard for the relation between form and content. Indeed, much of his back catalogue is infused with this carefree tendency to throw everything at the wall and let it stick, for better or worse. What we’re left with is a string of disparate impressionistic stylizations that detract from the intended engagement with the text. Boyle isn’t Jean-Luc Godard; he wants us to believe wholeheartedly in his illusion, but this symbiosis is shattered by the multiple showy tricks exhibited, alerting the viewer to the camera’s presence.
The conflict created by these montages of hyper-stylized ADD is mediated by the overlaying of continual ambience courtesy of Rick Smith, member of Underworld and long-time Boyle collaborator. His intense soundtrack builds into a chugging pace, blaring unceasingly, stringing together the visual mishmash into a cohesive narrative line… but at the same time generating an overabundance of insincere tension. The volume reaches deafening levels at each and every climax, drowning the visual field.
As anyone who saw the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony will attest, Boyle is capable of much better than this. His films continually suffer from an unnerving restlessness; they fidget, scratch an itch and rub their nose. What little they ask of the viewer is ultimately compromised, for all avenues of autonomous audience engagement are denied through the lavishing of an oppressive aesthetic.