Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Trance (2013) – Review

Review: Trance is a stylishly designed psychological thriller that succeeds on its great twists. The film is about Simon, an art auctioneer who approaches a group of criminal partners offering to help them steal a valuable painting in exchange for paying off his gambling debts. During the heist, Simon is hit on the head and cannot remember where he stashed the painting. The leader of the group, Franck, decides to take Simon to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, to help him remember – however, her work starts to bring up old repressed memories blurring the line between what is real.

The first thing that stands out about Trance is the ‘hip’ energetic style that director Danny Boyle gives the film – from the thumping score and slick camera work/editing to the modern production design. Boyle’s work has always had a very kinetic and hypnotic feel, but here he takes it a step further. The whole narrative to some extent relies on the film’s style, which creates the atmosphere for the audience to fully experience Simon’s psychological transformation.

This transformation has a clear arc across the film’s three acts. When Simon first appears in act one, he is the film’s likable protagonist, but that starts to change as the film progresses – and it is this transition that makes the film kind of brilliant (along with the third act in general). The first act, with its plucky voiceover narration, feels a bit like Boyle’s Trainspotting – Simon inviting the viewer into his world, and explaining how everything works. The second act, however, very much ushers in a very different film, Boyle never wanting to retread the same narrative territory.

With the second act, Boyle plays with the viewer – persistently questioning the motivations of each of the three main characters (Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth), never quite giving an indication who can be trusted and who cannot. This both works in the film’s favor and does not.

The second act comes very close to losing its audience as it jumps around presenting cases in favor of and against each character while also outlining multiple couplings (and possible betrayals) – it is easy to get lost in all the shifting. This all results in a very muddled narrative with no clear protagonist (as Simon seems to be someone different than who was first introduced to the audience), and the forward momentum seems to almost come to a complete halt, mangled in the confusion of an array of twists and reverses (diminishing much of the good will a strong first act built up).

But, the second act also wonderfully sets up the third act (though, it almost ruins the film in the process). It plants the seed of doubt for the audience in Simon, leaving them open to embracing either Franck or Elizabeth should the narrative turn to them, while still keeping Simon as a man put upon by outside forces (allowing him to return as the protagonist at any moment, which is something Boyle constantly teases) – thus all three characters enter the third act as both protagonist and antagonist (the audience truly does not know how it will all end – and is thus completely in the hands of the film’s narrative). The psychological jumbling also leaves the audience open to accept whatever explanation is given (the reveal), because they have seen (and accepted) what hypnosis has done and can do to the characters in act two (they believe in the world of the film – which for a film like this, is very important for it to work).

The third act is quite genius in its reveal, the way Boyle brings everything back together and ramps the pacing back up. Everything is different, and yet makes sense (which is exactly what you want from a film built on a twist). It is too bad that the second act is structured so poorly, because otherwise this might be a great film.

Trance is very stylish and aesthetically compelling, well-acted, and has one of the best twist endings in recent memory. But, all that said, the pacing of the second act brings it all down (almost completely). What is left is a film that is fantastic at the beginning and at the end, but with a middle that is over long and too chaotic and tedious.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Danny Boyle again showcases his brilliance as a visual and aesthetically modern filmmaker with Trance. Visually, everything in the film works together creating an aesthetic of illusion, playing into the narrative of hypnosis altering memories. From an aesthetics standpoint, it is a fun piece of art.

Much like Boyle’s past work, this film also has an electronic music infused score, this time from Rick Smith (a member of the group Underworld, whom are frequent musical collaborators with Boyle). The score perfectly melds with the tone and aesthetic of the film. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is also excellent, particularly in his aggressive colorful lighting, which, like the other collaborative technical aspects, very much matches the psychological atmosphere of the film. However, Mark Tildesley’s production design is a notch above the rest. The design work and architecture of the film sets and the locations used are phenomenal (especially given Boyle’s style for the film). It is the most aesthetically interesting design work I have seen so far this year in any film (it almost as a sci-fi feel). Boyle has a great collaborative relationship with his team, which can be seen in their overall great work.

Even with the gleam of Trance’s aesthetics and the great feeling it gives the viewer when everything is revealed and it all comes together, the film is also a bit of a character piece at its core, and thus is dependent on strong performances, which it has. Tuppence Middleton and especially Danny Sapani are good in small supporting roles. Rosario Dawson, playing Elizabeth, is asked to be very steady throughout the film, and yet she must also make the audience believe that both Franck and Simon are capable of being the good guy or bad guy in different moments. She does this very well. Vincent Cassel is quite good as Franck. He is ruthless yet charismatic and charming. James McAvoy’s Simon feels like a typical Boyle protagonist (along the same lines as those played by Ewan McGregor), but he also brings such a great inner darkness to Simon, who is outwardly delightful.

Summary & score: Trance is a good twist-driven thriller, but only because it ends well. 7/10

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