You are getting very sleepy
Adventurous director Danny Boyle barges into Christopher Nolan territory with Trance. From an original script by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, Boyle fashions a convoluted Chinese box mystery with overtones of two Nolan classics, the where-have-I-been riddlefest Memento and the deep-sea dive into the subconscious of Inception.
James McAvoy plays Simon, employee of a prestigious London auction house. As the picture opens, Simon is at the sale of a painting for which the bidding starts in the millions—and that’s pounds sterling, not U.S. dollars. As the price soars into eight digits, tear-gas grenades erupt in the room; Simon leaps from his seat, seizes the painting and dashes into a back room where he stows the art in a carrying case. Threading his way through passages, trailed by two security guards, he comes face-to-face with one of the grenade tossers, now brandishing a gun. Simon’s thoughts come in voice-over—“No painting is worth dying for”—as he hands over the case. As the thief stoops to open it, Simon grabs a stun gun from one of the guards and shocks him in the neck. Either the Taser was undercharged, or the thief is overprotected, because it only makes him angry. With notable restraint—which, like much of Trance, will be explained later—he doesn’t shoot Simon, but clubs him with the butt of his gun before absconding with the painting.
Simon is rushed unconscious to a hospital, and in the aftermath of the spectacular robbery, emerges from a coma days later to find himself the gallant (if unsuccessful) hero of the hour.
Meanwhile—did I say the thief absconded with the painting? That’s not exactly true. The man and his cohorts make their getaway right enough, but when they open the carrying case they find nothing inside but the painting’s ornate, empty frame.
Simon returns home to find his apartment a shambles and two ominous-looking men waiting for him. They are Nate (Danny Sapani) and Dominic (Matt Cross), and they growl at him, “Franck wants to talk to you.”
Franck (Vincent Cassel) turns out to be the thief who traded blows with Simon in the back hallway of the auction house, and he wants to know what Simon has done with the painting.
Aha! So Simon was in on the heist from the beginning. At first we thought he was, as he grabbed the painting in the first confusion. Then we thought he wasn’t, as he packed the painting up and trundled it off with his security escort. Then we knew he wasn’t when he put up his futile resistance to Franck. Now we know he was, as Franck’s boys patiently extract several of Simon’s fingernails in an effort to sort out the double cross.
That’s the kind of game Boyle, Ahearne and Hodge are playing with us in Trance. And the game is only beginning.
Finally satisfied that Simon doesn’t remember—that blow on the head has knocked it clean away—and realizing there’s no point in torturing him further, Franck considers his options. The best one seems to be to send Simon to a hypnotherapist—with a cover story, of course—in the hope that the hocus-pocus will rattle Simon’s marbles around enough to make him recall what became of the movie’s multimillion-pound MaGuffin.
The therapist they choose is Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who senses right away that Simon is trying to find something far more important than a lost set of car keys.
End of plot summary—if I haven’t told you too much already. Suffice to say Trance shakes down into a three-way chess game among Simon, Franck and Elizabeth. Nate and Dominic are mere window dressing here, although a fourth character (played by the charmingly named Tuppence Middleton) appears at key moments in fantasies, dreams and memories. It all culminates in what can only be called the “here’s what happened” scene, as one character (no fair saying which) explains it all for us, though, alas, not quite with the aplomb Tony Shalhoub used to give it in Monk.
Trance is a well-crafted puzzle, more teasing than tantalizing, more pat than satisfying. It even ends with an unanswered question like Inception, but without the same resonance. The difference is key: Everybody dreams whether they want to or not, but nobody gets hypnotized against their will. All hypnosis is really self-hypnosis, although Trance (spoiler alert!) would tell us otherwise.