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Fully buying into Danny Boyle’s thriller Trance requires an awful lot of faith in hypnosis as a mental tool with Inception-level powers when it comes to creating and enforcing complicated mental states and elaborate mindscapes. Boyle doesn’t need hypnosis to justify the film’s flashy rendition of the world as a collection of crisp, sterile glass-and-metal spaces filled with intense neon colors; striking visual styles have been part of his films since the earliest days. But the way he visualizes hypnotic trances as subjective fantasy worlds gives him plenty of excuses to fully indulge his love for dream logic and discombobulating editing. Usually, though, the plot rationalization for the woozy subjectivity of his cinematography is more universal, and easier to accept: drugs in Trainspotting; madness in Shallow Grave, The Beach, and 28 Days Later; the outsized imagination of childhood in Millions; extreme physical privation in 127 Hours; and so forth. In Trance, viewers are expected to recognize a hypnotist as someone with a nigh-magical ability to manipulate subjective reality, and the entire story hinges on that unlikely belief.


James McAvoy opens the film by narrating his way through his work as an auction-house employee, explaining the procedures for dealing with attempted theft. The voiceover marks him as the film’s point-of-view character—but only briefly. Vincent Cassel quickly puts McAvoy’s exposition to the test by trying to steal a Goya painting as it’s being sold for millions. But the painting disappears mid-heist, and McAvoy, after a brutal blow to the head, doesn’t remember what happened to it. Cassel hires hypnotist Rosario Dawson to dig out the intel, while commanding McAvoy to conceal what they’re looking for, but Dawson figures out McAvoy is in trouble, and quickly takes charge of the process for her own ends. And so the film goes round and round, playing conjoined games of “Whose story is this?” and “What’s really going on?”

The answers are simple and hard to believe, but the road to get there is rich and complicated, filled with hypnosis-induced visions that iterate, warp, and pile up on each other to dizzying effect. Some are effectively nightmares, as McAvoy paws through bloody packaging looking for a dream-item that isn’t where it’s supposed to be in his mind, or one of his associates graphically visualizes his worst fear: helplessly lying in a grave as he’s buried alive. Screenwriter John Hodges (a frequent partner of Boyle’s, here working from a script written and directed for TV by Joe Ahearne in 2001) piles on the obfuscations and confusions, winding up with something that feels a bit like the progression of The Machinist (or to a small, unfortunate degree, Perfect Stranger), except far more propulsive and absorbing. In particular, music continues to be a huge part of Boyle’s landscape: The art-heist sequence in particular is soundtracked with pounding music suitable for getting hearts into throats. Narratively, Trance is questionable, but Boyle and Hodges whisk past all the unlikely developments with enough verve and style to keep audiences from thinking too hard until after they’ve left the theater. But even a frame this elaborate and rococo can’t entirely disguise the flaws in the artwork itself.

For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Trance’s Spoiler Space.