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April 13, 2013

I love puzzle movies, and heist movies, and movies that play around with unreliable narrators so you can’t trust that everything you see is real. In a way, these are actually all the same thing. So I was excited to see Danny Boyle taking on the genre in his new film Trance. While the result looks great, it’s not really as confusing as it’s been made out to be. To be sure, the script — by Doctor Who writer Joe Ahearne, backed up by Danny Boyle go-to John Hodge — is plenty smart, with lots of nicely textured hooks to grab on to. It’s just not exactly the mind-bendiest story going.

Simon works in an auction house, selling fine art. Among other things, he’s in charge of what happens when a robbery occurs: he grabs the most valuable pieces and whisks them off to a quick-drop into the safe. At least, that’s what he tells us, and what Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his gang (Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, and Wahab Sheikh) expect to happen when they attempt to steal Goya’s Witches in the Air. Franck gives Simon a nasty swat with the butt of his rifle and grabs the case, but when he opens it later the painting’s frame is empty.

When Simon wakes up and gets out of hospital he finds his apartment ransacked. Franck’s gang kidnap and torture him to find what he did with the painting, but he can’t remember, no matter how much they tell him that “everybody knows amnesia is bollocks.” They decide to try hypnosis to pull the information out of his head. Simon picks a therapist at random: Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who quickly determines what’s going on and wants in on the painting.

What follows from here is a delightful, if improbable, sequence of attempts to get Simon’s unconscious mind to give up the goods. The tricks escalate — with great help from editor Jon Harris and regular Boyle cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle — to a spectacular climax. But none of them are particularly intricate, and in retrospect it’s pretty easy to pick out which scenes “really happened” and which were all in someone’s head, even without going back to watch the film again.

To be fair, though, the master key to the whole puzzle did sort of leap out at me very early on. I mean really early. Imagine if the first time you watched Fight Club you’d guessed Tyler Durden’s secret the moment you saw him. I don’t mean this to brag — I’ve watched a huge number of puzzle films over the years so I’ve had lots of practice, and this one just isn’t that hard in comparison — and I also don’t mean it as a complaint. Fight Club is at least as much fun the second time around, now that you know the secret, and the same is true here: I loved watching little details slide into place, reaffirming my suspicions.

The one thing that does set Trance apart from most other puzzle movies is that the pieces seem to be made out of Jell-O. There’s a fair bit of squishyness to them, and even after you understand what’s “really going on” the narrative doesn’t click together neatly. No, there aren’t any glaring contradictions, but you can’t assemble a clear timeline of who did what, where, and when. A meaner critic could cite this as evidence of sloppiness; Boyle would probably argue something about the vagaries of human memory and perception, and I would tend to agree. Who says you have to know all the details to tell a good story, anyway?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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