'Trance': Boyle's latest is a mind-bender
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Back in the late '60s and early '70s, when on-screen nudity was becoming a "thing," there was a running joke in the culture where, if Johnny Carson were to ask a budding starlet if she was opposed to nudity in film as applied to herself, she would respond that she would reluctantly go with it "if the script called for it" or if it was "really necessary to the story." And then all of us would laugh, because, after all, when is it that nudity really is absolutely necessary to any story?
One of the signal features of "Trance," a very tricky new thriller directed by Danny Boyle (of "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" on one hand, and "Slumdog Millionaire" and "127 Hours" on the other, although those hands are closer together than one would immediately think), is that in its convoluted scenario, the naked female form is not just necessary, but it's a crucial plot point. To say much more would be to reveal a "spoiler," so I won't go on overmuch. Just think you should know some of what you're going to get before I instruct you that this is a movie that you really have to pay attention to.
Aside from the nudity that is essential -- no, really -- there's also a lot of grisly violence and generally deplorable cynicism. The movie opens with the fellow we believe will be our hero, Simon (James McAvoy, who's been taking too many of these cool-jerk-type roles of late, if you ask me), telling you how art heists are done in this day and age of enhanced security. He's a high-level cog at a big auction house, and a Goya that the house is selling is about to be the object of theft for a brutal and efficient gang led by Vincent Cassel's Franck.
Except Simon's not a victim in this crime -- he's the gang's inside man. And somewhere along the line something goes wrong, and Simon's left with a head injury and mistakenly hailed as a hero. Soon Franck and the gang are back in his life to get what they wanted in the first place, the painting Simon ended up not providing for them. It soon becomes clear that Simon's not faking them out again when he says he can't remember where he put it. He's got genuine amnesia. So the gang opts for a seemingly implausible fix: sending him to a hypnotherapist. That she happens to be a staggeringly beautiful woman (played by Rosario Dawson) should not strike us as noteworthy or unusual. No duh.
The script, by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, thereupon starts juggling is-it-real-or-is-it-a-hypnotic-trance balls with vigor, and Boyle, who has zero aversion to visual trickery and/or flash, accommodates the new-twist-every-minute story line with exhilarating vigor. Although the movie is arguably a little too eager to keep several steps ahead of its audience--like an Agatha Christie mystery, it's a puzzle that withholds some essential clues from those who like to try to solve such things as they go along--the overall cleverness and, yes, the occasional audacity of where "Trance" takes you is genuinely cheeky, and largely admirable. The movie falters a bit when Boyle tries to have it both ways, and make the movie Say Something Meaningful About The Nature Of Memory And Consciousness And Emotion. Dawson ends up saddled with this sort of material, and because as a performer she's got a real knack for conveying both intelligence and empathy with little seeming effort, she almost pulls it off. But that's not the stuff you'll remember when you leave the theater. What you'll remember: screaming, cars on fire, who-said-what-to-who (the puzzle of the movie is a pretty good one, and excellent for post-screening coffee), Simon's poor fingernails, and, yes, the particularity of that nude scene. I can say no more.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.