Trance: Trainwreck from a Trainspotting Director

April 14, 2013

Directed by Danny Boyle
2 stars
Starring James McAvoy and Rosario Dawson

In the new film Trance, James McAvoy plays Simon, a London art auctioneer who is struck on the head by an art thief (Vincent Cassel) during a heist. Simon recovers in hospital (as the British say), and we soon learn not only that he was in on the robbery and that he somehow managed to steal the art but-regrettably for all involved-he's got amnesia and can't remember where he hid it. After threats and torture, Simon and the thieves enlist the aid of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) who attempts to delve into Simon's subconscious to help him find the stolen art. Not only are millions of dollars on the line, but Simon's life is as well, and along the way all sorts of real and false memories pop up, as well as crosses and double-crosses. If it all sounds like a potentially intriguing plot for a great movie, it is. However Trance is not that movie.

Don't blame the actors; the cast is game and professional. Not a single one of these capable actors betrays a trace of indignity or annoyance at the absurd contortions their characters are asked to go through in service of this scattered plot. Don't blame the director, Danny Boyle, who helmed films such as 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire, and knows his way around a camera.

No, much of the blame for this dud lies at the feet of the writers, who are too clever by half (or maybe two-thirds). Trance is meant to be a mind-bending trip along the lines of Inception, but comes off like it was written by an eighth grader who was assigned to re-write Memento for a creative writing class.

About halfway through Trance, I lost focus on the plot and my mind began wandering, taking me back to a seminar I attended years ago at The Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I'd learned many techniques of plot construction from veteran screenwriters, but what I was seeing on the screen didn't seem to fit any of them. In screenplays, one event should organically and logically lead to the next. Characters shouldn't simply suddenly do things for no reason, or do things that only make sense if they somehow knew the future. I'd narrowed Trance down to three possibilities: monkey, computer, and hat. Over and over, the phrase "monkey, computer, or hat?" ran through my mind.

Did a roomful of monkeys at keyboards bang this stuff out over the course of a few months, stopping only for banana breaks? That seemed plausible at first, but then I saw that the plot wasn't totally random, there was clearly some human factor involved. That led me to suspect that some computer had followed a special algorithm to create the zig-zag logic, time sequences, and non-sequiturs that were filling the screen. Or maybe I was not being charitable enough, and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge had actually written scenes that could plausibly go together, and then wrote each scene on a slip of paper which was then put into a hat, drawn out randomly, then reassembled them into the script. I still don't know the answer, but I'll go with "hat."

One of the (many) problems with the film is that the core of the plot deals with memory, amnesia, and hypnosis yet clearly knows nothing about memory, amnesia, or hypnosis. I have a degree in psychology-and often write about these topics in various contexts--and I can assure you that the assumptions and premises under which the characters (and indeed the entire film) operates are about as similar to real psychology as Bugs Bunny is to real rabbits.

I'm not going to be one of those pedantic nerds who complains that what we see on the silver screen doesn't happen in real life. The film is not a documentary, and I get that. However if you're going to write a movie in which psychology plays a key role in the plot, then you might want to know what the hell you're writing about and keep it at least remotely plausible. Otherwise, why bother to include it at all? You can't take a story about 1940s baseball players and expect to casually include references to spaceships.

Trance is not inherently a bad movie; it's just one of those movies where the longer it went on, the less I cared who lived, who died, or whether anyone found that damned painting. Trance has--or pretends it has--a few twists that I won't give away, but even after the big twist at the end, little of the previous 103 minutes makes much sense. It's never clear what, exactly, the relationship was between the three main characters, so the ending is unsatisfying. Your mileage may vary; if you just want to experience Danny Boyle's cinematic showmanship, which ranges from brilliant and creative to garish and ham-handed, then Trance may be worth your while.