Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Cinema File #227: "Trance" Review

Trance, the new cerebral heist thriller from Danny Boyle, follows a would-be art thief with apparent amnesia who is held hostage by the gang he doesn't remember screwing over. Once they're convinced his memory loss is genuine, they turn to a seemingly random hypnotherapist to help him recall where he stashed the stolen merchandise before he forgot, along the way unlocking hidden memories, alternate personalities, and a dark past that causes events to spiral out of control. Well, out of the control of some people, but all according to the best laid plans of others. Plots within plots and twists within twists are the order of the day with this movie, and ultimately your enjoyment of it will be determined by how many narrative back flips you can tolerate, and whether or not you can suspend your disbelief that anything so convoluted could actually happen.

The one big problem I have with the story is the central gimmick of hypnosis, which anyone whose actually had any experience with the practice will tell you is grossly misrepresented. Hypnosis isn't mind control, and its not a super power that can completely upend a person's sense of reality in a session or two. Even the slightest degree of semi-permanent change takes much more time and energy, and much more collaboration between the hypnotist and the one being hypnotized, than this film's structure will allow. In order for the story to work, this very real and very subtle skill is turned into something almost mystical, which in the abstract wouldn't be a problem for a movie, except that this one spends the rest of its time trying to establish the events as taking place in the gritty real world of gun toting crime fiction. If this were a more sci-fi tinged universe a la Inception, it might have worked, but as it stands it all gets a bit silly.

That being said, Trance does its best to make you forget the unbelievable nature of its main conceit with a stylish flourish characteristic of Boyle's past work and an unrelenting pace that rarely stops long enough for you to question the logic of anything going on. Its entertaining from the word go and builds to a satisfying conclusion that's both tense and for the most part unpredictable until the end. To the film's credit, and also characteristic of Boyle, is the moral ambiguity of its characters, often aided by the fact that sometimes they themselves don't know everything about their own lives. Its used to great effect not only for a genuinely creepy third act turn, but also in general as a surprising reversal of expectations concerning just who we should be rooting for in all this.

As much as I loathed the film Wanted for its wanton disregard of the source material it was supposedly based on, I'm finding it harder and harder to hold my anger against James McAvoy as he turns in one great performance after another, and this film is no exception. Amnesia is a tricky thing to pull off without coming across as hokey, but as the full nature of his character's fractured mindset comes into focus, at no point do I question the reality of his reactions. Vincent Cassel is delightful as the leader of the heist crew, walking a very delicate tightrope of being both threatening and sympathetic. The only real disappointment is arguably Rosario Dawson, who isn't a bad actress by any means, but doesn't really fit the character. Then again that might not be entirely her fault, as the character as written is a bit all over the place. I get the feeling she was written as more of a traditional femme fatale and then toned down quite a bit to fit the tone, but ultimately she's just sort of bland.

I’m personally calling it a sign of increased maturity that I’ve been able to get this far into this review before talking about the obvious elephant in the room, but I can’t not talk about it, so here goes. It’s regrettable that a movie as otherwise entertaining as Trance will probably only be remembered for one full frontal nude scene, but it certainly is memorable, even if it doesn’t need to be in the movie at all. It’s weird, especially for a notable pervert such as myself, to question the utility of a naked Rosario Dawson in a movie, as I think the point would be self-evident, but really, it just comes out of nowhere and comes off as completely arbitrary in context. It’s not just the nudity, but a specific and very odd thing she does preceding the scene that makes it so strange. It’s explained later on in a flashback, but once we get the explanation, it still seems so pointless, as if maybe at some point during the script writing phase this was some clue that was better expressed somewhere else, but they just left it in to have a nude scene. Again, not complaining about the nudity itself, as how could I really, but its just jarring enough that I’m almost too distracted by the questions it raises to derive any sort of prurient satisfaction from it. But then maybe that was the point. Or maybe it was just to create buzz for the movie (pun intended).

Overall, Trance is a highly enjoyable thriller that comes together well despite how silly and often confusing many of its component parts happen to be. It’s never boring and has enough going on that even if you’re not a particular fan of the genre, there’s still enough to enjoy just watching everything unfold with such style and precision. Once you get to the final master plan revealing what it was all really about, you might be tempted to question whether all the pain and turmoil these characters went through was really worth it, but the ride is fun enough that by that point, it doesn’t really matter. Its maybe a little more complicated than it has to be, but not enough that it feels bogged down by being overly clever. If you don't mind a narrative jumping around in time and in and out of people's heads, this is definitely a solid recommendation. Also, full frontal Rosario Dawson.

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