Friday, May 9, 2014

Film Friday: Trance (2013)

Danny Boyle is a mixed bag for me. I loved Trainspotting and the first half of 28 Days Later. I hated the second half of 28 Days Later. 28 Weeks Later and Sunshine bored me. And Slumdog Millionaire felt like the film version of a tourist trap. Today we talk about another Danny Boyle film, Trance and I put this in the “loved” category, with a minor reservation. Indeed, with a great cast, nice direction and a strong story, I highly recommend this one.

The description of this film did not sound promising: “A fine-art auctioneer joins forces with a hypnotherapist to retrieve a stolen painting.” Hmm. Sounds like some erudite version of Matlock, doesn’t it? It’s not. Before I tell you what it is though, let me say that I went into this film knowing nothing at all and I found that to be a very pleasant way to watch this film. So you might want to skip this review and do the same, though I will carefully avoid spoilers. In any event, come back and share your views.
The story opens with the main character giving you a brief history of how art theft once worked and what the auction house he works for now does to stop modern thieves. Our hero happens to have a specific role in that, which requires him to spirit away the most expensive piece of art in the event of a robbery and drop it into a huge time-lock safe. The hero, by the way, is Simon (James McAvoy). No sooner does Simon tell us this, than a robbery takes place. As thugs release smoke grenades, Simon does his thing, only before he can drop the painting into the vault, he runs into Franck (Vincent Cassel). Franck takes the painting from Simon.

The movie has begun.

To dance around some spoilers, Simon attacks Franck even though his employer has explicitly told him never to do that. Franck, in turn, knocks Simon out with the butt of his shotgun. Simon seems badly hurt. Franck then disappears with the painting... only, the painting isn’t in the case. Somehow, it has vanished.
When Simon gets released from the hospital, Franck and his crew find Simon and they try to get him to tell them where he put the painting, but Simon has amnesia from the blow to the head. To overcome this, Simon’s doctor suggests that they seek the help of a hypnotherapist. This is how they come to meet Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who undertakes to help Simon recover his lost memory.

That last line probably has you thinking that this film will be really dull with Simon going through a journey of discovery about childhood trauma as he weeps on Elizabeth’s couch. It’s not. (Remember my spoiler warning.) Elizabeth figures out who Simon is and what he’s after and she decides she wants a piece of this, so she makes a deal with the group for a share of the take if she can help Simon figure out where the painting ended up. From there, the story turns into a bit of a mystery of what really happened to the painting, who is on what side, and how did this all really happen in the first place. You will be surprised.
Really A Top Notch Film
As I said, this is a Danny Boyle film. I actually didn’t know that when I went in, but I see it now that I know. Boyle has a strong style that employs witty dialog, great use of color and music, a solid eye for images, and solid pacing to all of his scenes. All of those things are at play here. Boyle sometimes has an unfortunate penchant for drifting far left in some of his films, but this one is politics free, except perhaps for a bit of feminism near the end. So that’s not a problem.

The film also has a strong plot, though it’s not as profound or revealing as Trainspotting or as creative as 28 Days Later. What makes the plot so strong is three things. First, Boyle takes his time revealing his secrets. He doesn’t prematurely eplotulate onto the screen, so you will find yourself amazed throughout as the plot unfolds. In fact, at almost every turn, you learn something new about the characters and you come closer to understanding what really happened.
Secondly, Boyle doesn’t mind keeping things ambiguous. I know a lot of people hate this and that’s probably why the film wasn’t embraced by the general public, but it makes the film a lot stronger. Indeed, there are several minutes toward the middle-end where you have no idea if what you are watching is the real world or a dream brought on by hypnosis. And that really helps you feel what the characters are going through as the whole scheme starts to unravel near the end.

But third and most importantly, Boyle never cheats. In so many heist films, things happen that can’t be explained, so many holes are left ignored, and the film passes off these problems with a wink and some fake after-the-fact presentation that only fills in the holes in a broad way but aren’t things the audience could ever have guessed. This film isn’t like that. Yes, this film has some serious twists as it drives toward the ending and, no, you won’t figure it all out, but this film gives you all the clues you need to figure it out. In fact, watching it a second time, it’s shocking how blatantly all the pieces are strewn about the film. You just don’t understand their importance until later.

For these reasons, I really highly recommend this film: (1) great cast, (2) solid direction with great eye for images, (3) fast paced, (4) the twists and turns are organic to the story and are fully earned, yet they are unpredictable and change the movie in fascinating ways, and (5) the story is strong and holds your attention throughout.
I do, however, have a huge caveat. Before I discuss it, let me warn you that this will involve BIG, HUGE spoilers!! Ok. When the ending finally unfolds, you discover who is really behind the heist and why they did this. The reason has to do with Simon’s character being less than savory. You are suppose to feel uplifted by a sense of vindication in this, i.e. that the victim has turned the tables on their abuser. Unfortunately, there are some problems with this that produce the exact opposite feeling. First, it doesn't fit the Simon we know. Simon is presented as violent and obsessed and that is why he was put through this. However, throughout the film, there is no sense that this is Simon’s true personality. Throughout the film he plays a genuinely nice guy who is meek and seems to be a victim himself. So it’s very hard to believe that he was this other person the film claims and it just doesn’t feel right.

Secondly, for this to feel right, we need to see Elizabeth as the victim who is justified in striking back. But that becomes really hard because of some choices the film makes. First, to make this work, she uses Franck as well as Simon and Franck becomes a very sympathetic character over time. So that doesn’t feel quite right. More importantly, however, because of her messing with Simon’s mind, Simon brutally kills an innocent woman and Elizabeth doesn’t really seem to feel any sense of responsibility for this. That makes her just as rotten as Simon, if not worse, and it wipes out the happy/sexy feel that the film tries to end upon. Thus, while the film is really well done and enjoyable up to this point, the ending is a bit jarring when it's meant to be sexy and light, and that ultimately hurts the film.



Tennessee Jed said...

this apppears to be my kind of film, so I will bow out for now, and come back to your review after screening it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Let me know what you think. :)

Anonymous said...

When I saw you were reviewing this film, I decided to watch it on HBO On Demand this morning.

Rosario Dawson... 'nuff said. ;-)

I wasn't quite sure what to expect either. All I knew was that this film was directed by Danny Boyle and involved an art heist... and I'm a sucker for art heist movies.

I agree with your criticism re: Simon being less than savory... but I suppose I can believe the therapy possibly had something to do with him stopping this behavior... and the idea of meeting your dream woman and turning into a paranoid, over-protective nut is... well, it's something that I hope doesn't happen to me, so it kinda worked on that level.

And I'm usually the first to complain when a character doesn't get their just desserts but it actually didn't bother me this time (Elizabeth and the dead woman). In fact, it didn't even occur to me. She doesn't exactly greet the dead body in the trunk with a smile... but yeah, she doesn't feel responsible either.

And yes, Boyle makes great movies. Lately he's been working with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who won an Oscar for Slumdog (a movie I have yet to see). Mantle also shot Ron Howard's Rush which is Howard's best-looking movie, period.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, So did you enjoy the film? Where do you rank it among Boyle's films?

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah... I neglected to say whether I enjoyed it. :-)

I did... it's nothing I need to see again anytime soon, but I liked it. It was on my to-watch list but your review made me bump it up to the top.

Looks like Danny Boyle has another heist flick in the works - this one sounds awesome.

I've only seen 28 Days Later and its sequel, and Sunshine. The former films I saw against my will (not a horror fan) and needless to say, I found them quite effective. Sunshine put me on edge and I described it to friends as "The Abyss in space... on steroids."

I still haven't seen Trainspotting (I know, I know!) and Slumdog Millionaire... I'll get to it one day. I'm not in any rush.

So I can't rank it - I haven't seen enough of his movies.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I just got an e-mail from Twilight Time... your copy of Rollerball should be shipping soon if it hasn't already.

(I'm on their mailing list so I know when all their stuff ships.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Trainspotting is by far his best. It really stands out in a great many ways. I absolutely recommend you see that one. The rest are of varying quality.

Glad to hear they published details on my purchase! LOL! And no, it hasn't arrived yet. I did order it though. :D

Anonymous said...

It's not your purchase - it's just a promotional e-mail. :-)

And yeah, it's one of those movies I have to see one day. I've seen it referenced so many places.

BTW, I know it's not Boyle-related but you might find this of interest.

T-Rav said...

So basically it's like 28 Days Later: Great overall story, strong characters, believable plot, but then gets all bolloxed up at the end. Why, Danny, why?

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Pretty much. The very ending is definitely a negative on the film, which is too bad because he was doing really well until that point. I also think they could have kept the same ending, but changed the tone and made it a better movie.

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