Playing a sophisticated London auctioneer, James McAvoy gazes into the camera with cool, nerveless clarity as his voiceover gives us the inside tricks of protecting and stealing a painting. This opening sequence of Danny Boyle's Trance is no more than exposition with a dash of red herring, and shouldn't work at all. Yet it does because McAvoy's voice is so captivating, already layered with deception and delusion, and because Boyle's visual creativity sweeps us along. We zoom into the auction room; we're in a van with a gang of mercenaries hired by the auction house in case of trouble; a black and white flashback shows us the good old days when it was easy to steal a Rembrandt. Keep in mind how well McAvoy and Boyle save this opening; that will be extremely relevant to the ending of Trance, a film that looks like a heist movie wrapped in a memory puzzle, but is itself a kind of red herring.
For a good long time, it is also fun to watch, with Simon (McAvoy) in the middle of the action when robbers rush in to steal a Goya painting that has just sold for over 27 million pounds. As he has been trained to do, Simon grabs the painting to carry it to a safe place, but is thwacked on the head by the mastermind behind the crime, Franck (Vincent Cassel), and loses his memory of what he did with the Goya. Maybe a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), can help?
Very quickly, we're led to wonder who was really involved in the theft, then who's double or triple-crossing whom. This is Boyle from an excellent vintage: his first feature, the delicious dark comedy Shallow Grave (1994) plays the same game of whom do you trust? Is there any honor or truth among thieves? In Trance, we also wonder about the weird coincidences and lapses in Simon's recovered memories. At first, the looping, Rococo plot unfolds with such ease that we barely have time to realize there's a French robber (Cassel is effectively sinister as always) and an American hypnotist (Dawson is a bit too much like she's in a trance herself) in London, as if they were the U.N. of thugs and therapists.
Flitting back and forth between present-day scenes and memories, Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (their many films together include Slumdog Millionaire) create a sleek, almost photorealist London, with flashbacks and memories so sharp and bright it's deliberately hard to know what's real and what's not.
Too bad the twists become so overwrought, veering into pure confusion, as if the film were an unintentional parody of Inception. John Hodge (co-writer with Joe Ahearne) has done fantastic earlier work with Boyle, including Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but here he -- and Boyle and editor Jon Harris -- let the audience get lost in the story's fog. In a long, middle section, even the love scenes are flat. The sex scenes include a full-frontal Dawson, McAvoy's butt and an art-historical conversation about shaving pubic hair -- when all that seems flat, you know the movie's in trouble.
There's worse to come. The "real" story, with the answers Simon has been searching for, lands with a clumsy thud. This time Dawson tells the story in voiceover, and she can't begin to escape the grinding machinery of that convention. Even with fiery explosions, the sequence feels like every bad legal drama on TV when some attorney explains how the crime took place. The answer itself makes us feel like the rug has been pulled out from under the whole film – that's what we've been waiting for?
Even Boyle's visual flair lets him down here. You could argue that the realism suits the content: we're learning the actual story, and Boyle has kept the stylish touches for dreamier moments. But realism is no excuse for dullness.
Like Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects - which shares a twisty, hallucinatory impulse and a weak script - Trance is a disappointment from a director we know can do much better.
Boyle is a constant innovator, though, always worth paying attention to. Anyone who only knows him as the director of Slumdog might be astonished at his earlier films. A gruesome, surreal scene in Trance could have come from a horror movie – and is a reminder that Boyle made one of the best walking dead films ever, the zombie-virus thriller 28 Days Later. Click here for a look at some terrific, lesser-known Danny Boyle films.