“Trance” superficially seems like a regulation crime thriller. The theft of a precious Goya painting from a London auction house sets off a lethal game of hide-and-seek. The early scenes with our chummy narrator Simon (James McAvoy), a junior executive who’s clubbed in the head during the theft, suggest that’s where things are going. But it’s all misdirection.
“Trance” is not a simple smash-and-grab yarn but an abstract psychological thriller. Moviegoers who expect a rote movie from British director Danny Boyle (“28 Days Later,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) will have the rug yanked from under them. Boyle is telling us a story of a perfect crime gone awry. But like his protagonist, he’s really shifty about it. “Trance” is an artful experiment in refined sadism and mind control. Its whiplash shifts of perspective and chronology are brought off with breathtaking skill. Even as we’re aware of being manipulated, we savor the film’s expert control.
When Simon awakes in a hospital several weeks after his attack, the thieves’ leader, Franck (hawk-faced Vincent Cassel) swoops down on him. Only Simon knows where the Goya has landed, and Simon claims amnesia. When violent efforts fail to jog Simon’s memory, Franck’s gang takes a different approach. Keeping Simon in their cross-hairs, they send him to Elizabeth (a never-more-assured Rosario Dawson), an eminent hypnotherapist, to uncover the buried secret.
The film enters Simon’s subconscious and our own grip on reality comes unhinged. “Trance” proceeds in leaps, loops and layers. No character is completely innocent or entirely trustworthy. And the angles they use to betray one another are kids’ stuff next to the shell game Boyle plays with us, the viewers.
The story slides in disorienting directions. Elizabeth proves to be formidably resourceful, Franck discloses a surprising romantic streak and Simon reveals a background less than simon pure. With visual vitality that borders on sensory overload and seemingly endless tricks up his sleeve, Boyle teleports us into dream states, suppressed memories, flashbacks and alternate viewpoints. You can’t guess what’s coming next. You can’t even be certain about what’s happening in the moment.
Those who prefer their movies literal and linear will groan at the effort needed to hold onto this gorgeous whirligig. The appeal of adventure movies is rooting for a lead character to overcome the threats that encircle him. “Trance” takes its sweet time deciding who that triumphant figure will be. It requires us to switch allegiance a couple of times too many. But I’d always recommend a movie that kidnaps me to dreamland over one that puts me to sleep.