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Movie Review: Trance

Trance, a.k.a. Better Version of Side Effects, is a psychological thriller directed by Danny Boyle and starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel. It is also a noir story, an art heist story and a couple other things — but you’re better off going in cold to this one.

Surveying co-writer Joe Ahearne’s IMDb listing, Trance (2013) appears to be based on a TV movie of the same name that he wrote in 2001. The other co-writer is frequent Danny Boyle collaborator John Hodge (Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, Trainspotting, The Beach). Trance shares the heightened reality of these other Boyle/Hodge collaborations, including but not limited to exploding genitals, talking half-heads and perhaps the first plot to hinge on the art history of pubic hair.

Lest you worry that Danny Boyle has gone into the uplifting Oscar hinterlands with Millions, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, his wacky and excessive Olympic opening ceremonies and this film will disabuse you of that concern. In fact Trance‘s principal photography was done as Boyle was also working on the Olympics, and then continued with additional photography post-Olympics.

Rosario Dawson, who spoke at a talkback after my screening, said you can tell the scenes where Vincent Cassel is noticeably tanner and more buff. It’s hard to talk about Dawson’s role in the film without giving too much away, so… spoilers ahead.

James McAvoy plays Simon, an auctioneer at an art dealers who is trained in security precautions. But he has a gambling problem, so he makes a deal with Franck (Vincent Cassel) and a gang of thieves, to help them lift a painting, Goya’s Witches in the Air. There’s a hitch in the heist, which leads to Simon getting clocked on the head and the memory of where he hid the painting being lost. Franck forces Simon to choose a hypnotherapist and he picks Sarah Lamb (Dawson), who quickly figures out that Simon is under duress from the gang. She makes a deal with Franck to become an equal partner if she can help him retrieve the memory of the painting’s location. But as we discover, Sarah has a past with Simon and knows more than she is letting on.

Like Side Effects, Trance attempts to pull off a rare protagonist flip. It does it much better, in my opinion, but I wouldn’t say it is altogether successful simply because once the audience’s sympathies are with James McAvoy’s character Simon, it is hard to flip them to Dawson’s hypnotherapist Sarah Lamb, and even harder to flip them to Cassel’s theft ring leader. The film cares much more about developing its own puzzle box structure than developing the characters, although it is Dawson’s Sarah that ends up being the most fully-realized, if only in retrospect.

The whole movie is really her own elaborate revenge fantasy. The problem is, we don’t see McAvoy’s violent tendencies until the flashback from her perspective at the very end. By then, it’s a big flip to get the audience to think of him as villain instead of victim. If it works, it does so because of Dawson (and editor Jon Harris) have properly seeded in some of the hints that what you’ve been watching is not the whole truth. The abrupt scene transitions at the beginning bothered me, but they turned out to have a purpose. According to Dawson, the layering of scenes on top of each other was not in the script, but was something that developed over the long Olympics-interrupted post-production period.

Dawson praised the work of d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with Boyle to create textures based on famous artworks and whose fondness for reflected surfaces was skillfully drawn upon by the editor. The look of this film is as in-your-face as Mantle’s Oscar-winning work on Slumdog Millionaire, but perhaps more beautiful.

As far as I know, the portrayal of the powers of hypnotherapy (and love) is accurate enough. Dawson did extensive research with working hypnotherapists for the role. What I do know and enjoy is that this the first film I know where someone concussed by a head injury actually sustains some believable injuries. Trance is probably doomed to be thought less of than other Boyle films, but it is great piece of genre cinema and its baroque structure and visual texture make it as fascinating and fun a film as I’ve seen this year.

One final sour note: I found the way the dark-skinned black henchman (Danny Sapani) is killed to be quite racist. I doubt Boyle and company intended to invoke white fears of black male sexuality, but they should’ve known better. Some people in my screening even applauded this moment, I hope out of joy in stopping a rapist, not punishing a black man unduly for sexual desire. After all, the movie had already established that McAvoy’s character needed only to say “strawberry” to cripple Sapani’s character.

Danny Boyle talks to Wired about making Trance as an outlet for dark impulses that didn’t fit in the Olympic opening ceremony


  1. Great review! But I’ll argue two points (WARNING — they contain spoilers!) I actually thought DB did a pretty good job with making Vince Cassel’s Franck less and less of a bad guy and even moving on to a sympathetic guy as the movie was going a long. When he first got shot in his kitchen, I remember thinking, “Oh no!” And then, “Wait, shouldn’t I be glad that he just got shot?” Anyhoo — moving on to my second argument – I don’t think the shooting of the black henchman, eh-hem, as it was done was racist AT ALL. The way I took it was this as McAvoy’s inner monologue: “You were about to rape the woman I love, so I will take that capacity away from you NOW and make it hurt.”

  2. All three major scenes of torture the black male character went through were reminiscent of the tortures inflicted on black men during slavery and after. Buried alive (as during slavery), genitals destroyed (as during Jim Crow) and trapped in a chair struggling as if being executed on death row (as in the american prison system). Why of the members of the gang was the black character selected for all these methods of suffering and destruction. It’s basically typical of the desire to see black men destroyed that has pervaded and perverted the whole of western cinema for decades. The film is deeply racist as well as sexist since its main message is that men are raping murdering monsters that need destroyed if they can’t be psychologically controlled. All in all a racist feminist propaganda movie posing as a psychological thriller.

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