TRANCE. Thought-provoking thriller by Danny Boyle

We, film fans, often complain that today’s cinema, especially Western cinema, is formulaic.

Jerzy Babarowski

22 January 2024

TRANCE. Thought-provoking thriller by Danny Boyle

That we immediately know what will happen, that the characters are one-dimensional, that it has all been done before, and that there are no fresh ideas – neither in terms of execution nor narrative. And then suddenly comes Trance, which forces us to reevaluate all these assumptions, and it is directed by one of the most skillful screen magicians working today – Danny Boyle. The problem is that his film tries so hard that it’s difficult to tell whether we’re dealing with a brilliantly told, clever parable of human greed or a postmodernist gibberish.

So, I’m a fan of Radiohead, right? A British band, maybe you’ve heard of them. Well, in 1995, Radiohead released the album “The Bends,” which includes an amazing song titled Just, with an equally fantastic music video (I recommend, check it out here). The genesis of this hit is simple – vocalist Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood held a competition to see who could fit more chords into one song. And it’s quite evident in Just. The fact that the result of their experiment turned out to be an absolute hit speaks not only to the incredible compositional skills of British musicians but also to how sometimes eccentricity proves to be highly profitable. Trance by Danny Boyle is reminiscent of Just, I’m just not sure if it matches it in quality. Boyle’s film is constructed as if its writers (appropriate because in this case, there were two of them) made a bet on who could insert more narrative twists into one film. They joined forces, put everything together, and presented the result to Boyle. It’s like watching <insert title of any film with a twist at the end> multiplied by ten. However, this playfulness, at least at first glance, doesn’t seem like an empty show-off of mastering narrative conventions. It appears that the creators at least tried to convey something in this manner. The problem is that while for the first hour the plot is built on the foundations of logic, afterward, it becomes a free fall, and the successive twists make you completely indifferent to what happens to the characters by the end, as long as this nightmare ends.

Trance James McAvoy Rosario Dawson Vincent Cassel

Due to the onion-like nature of the story, it’s challenging for me to outline the plot in a way that you’ll know what to expect and simultaneously not spoil anything, but I’ll try. Simon (James McAvoy) works as an auction house employee. His task is to take care of the exhibited works of art and move them to a safe place in case of a robbery. The film begins with a virtuoso sequence of such a robbery, carried out by a gang led by Frank (Vincent Cassel). In line with what Simon was taught during exercises in the surrounding chaos of an attack, he takes a precious painting (Witches in Flight by Francisco Goya) and rushes to the back of the building to drop it down the chute. Unfortunately, Frank intercepts him, and Simon’s heroic attempt to stop the bandit ends with him being hit in the head with a rifle butt and losing consciousness. Cut. Simon ends up in the hospital, where he undergoes rehabilitation. However, when he returns home, he finds that his apartment and car have been trashed by unknown assailants. Or rather, known assailants. At least to him.

In order not to reveal the first twist (although don’t worry, there are about twenty more to come), the next few sentences will be vague and mysterious. Of course, as you probably suspect, in the package stolen from the auction house, there is no painting. And Simon was the last person who had it. Unfortunately, he got hit on the head and doesn’t remember what he did with it. For certain reasons that I can’t write about, he will have to remind himself of what happened. So, he heads towards psychotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who helps her clients work through fears and traumas using hypnosis. Simon hopes that with her help, he will be able to recover the missing memory.

Trance Rosario Dawson

And that’s about it regarding the plot; I can’t say more. What can I say? Well, since we’re dealing with a work with an onion-like structure, allow me to discuss the film in the same way because, strangely enough, it fits perfectly.

So, we have to start with Danny Boyle and his direction because he casts his vision over the entire story, and he is responsible for how we experience it. This vision also makes Trance a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Boyle has always been an incredibly dynamic, kinetic director – you can see this in his feature debut titled Shallow Grave from 1994. With Trance, his talent is fully revealed – pastel, colorful images merge with a pulsating modern techno score by the band Underworld. The synchronization of the visuals and sound – not just music – is almost complete, and their mutual symbiosis would make Sergio Leone proud. In terms of craftsmanship, Trance leaves recent cinematic competition far behind and proves that Boyle is still one of the most technically skilled directors working today.

Trance James McAvoy

But it seems that Boyle is returning with Trance to the beginning of his career in a deeper way – again, we have a modest story about a handful of characters, and again, they are selfish, disturbed psychotics who are hard to root for, capable of anything just to achieve their goal. Similarly, as with Shallow Grave, there’s a comical taste hovering over the entire story, though not as strong as in 1994. It is in the natures of the characters that the first breaking of the mainstream cinema schemes lies – in Trance, there are no positive characters as such. Everyone is hiding something, and everyone has an undisclosed goal. Simon differs only in that his motives are transparent to us, and he is a victim of manipulations from all sides, but that doesn’t mean he is less calculating, cynical, or vindictive than the rest.

As with his previous works, Boyle continuously breaks the unity of place, time, and action, mixing plans, colliding events and dialogues with completely unrelated moments or locations. While in some films, these techniques were just an empty trick (Millions, Sunshine), in others, they were an integral, tension-building part of the story (Slumdog Millionaire), but in Trance, the fusion of the story and the tools to tell it reaches an even higher level. Boyle’s techniques perfectly correspond to the hypnotic, scattered world of Simon’s mind, desperately trying to recover the missing memory. In his commitment to the story, Boyle is unwavering and disciplined – he completely surrenders to the script, and each trick he uses reveals another piece of the puzzle, presenting the character in a different light.

Trance Vincent Cassel

This leads us to Boyle’s direction since the techniques he employs are in an inseparable relationship with the script. The problem lies in the script itself. While for the first hour, the writers present the action in detail and with respect for the principles of logic, consistently developing the characters and their motivations, methodically building the atmosphere using modest and effective means, from the beginning of the second hour, they start succumbing to the Just syndrome. Unlike their British screenwriter colleagues, their attempts with Trance don’t result in creating a hit with a pulsating rhythm and stunning melodies.

For a while, their tactics might still be mistaken for innovation and actual breaking of the norms, but towards the end – around the time I realized I really didn’t care about what would happen to these people on the screen – the unfolding plot revelations cause a headache, and the successive twists leave you at the end completely indifferent to what happens to the characters, as long as this nightmare ends. Because of my illness, I might have difficulty presenting an in-depth analysis of the film, and the fact that I went to see it with a tuberculosis cough and blurry eyes in the company of a group of hipster youngsters who came to the screening and I probably looked like a homeless person, might have influenced my perception. Also, this type of film, due to its structure, might genuinely gain (or lose) after repeated viewings, which I may decide on.

Trance James McAvoy

But regardless of its efforts to be something innovative and profound, Trance is a lesson for any screenwriter. A lesson that says: narrative twists cannot be the goal in themselves. The characters we decide to spend these two hours with must be close to us, and they must develop before our eyes in a somewhat uniform manner. Because if they are not, if every five – ten minutes we present them in a new light, if we constantly show the audience the middle finger, they will lose interest in our characters, and they won’t care about what happens to them. Trance commits exactly that sin of unbacked pride and bombast. It’s a fireworks display, colorful and spectacular, but not offering anything more, something that we will think about for ten, maybe even twenty minutes after leaving the cinema, but soon we will forget it.

At least for now, that’s what I think. But who knows – maybe its incredible technical side will make it my guilty pleasure after repeated viewings.