Danny Boyle | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R
Ambiguous endings used to be anathema to film audiences. They wanted things tied up in a pretty little bow, thank you very much; all the conflicts resolved and all their questions answered. Then the likes of Mulholland Drive and Donnie Darko came along and made vague join-the-dots-yourself endings fashionable — to the point where I’ve read several reviews of Trance that criticise it for having a final act that answers too many questions and clears things up too thoroughly. There’s no pleasing the masses, is there.
In fairness, people perhaps had a right to expect a head-scratcher. The plot description sounds like one: following an art heist, the guy who took and hid the painting (James McAvoy) has amnesia, so his gang’s leader (Vincent Cassel) takes him to a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to try to dig its location out of his subconscious. Cue a mindbending blend of what’s real and what’s hypnotically induced, right? Kinda like an art house Inception. Mix that with the fact this is an indie-scaled production (though it’s released by 20th Century Fox and Pathe), from a director known to push boundaries, with a choppily-edited self-consciously-confusing trailer, and the bizarre “this isn’t for you, multiplex-goer” poster, and you can see why people expected something that was left-field to the bitter end.
In the Blu-ray’s special features, Boyle comments that “it’s more classical than you might expect.” He’s talking specifically about the cinematography (and he’s right, but more on that later), but he could equally be talking about the entire movie. Though it has a storyline that blurs the line between what’s actually happening and what’s happening inside a character’s head (or is that characters’ heads?), the overall tone and style — particularly of the climax — is actually quite Hollywood. It’s Hollywood jazzed up with storytelling trickery, a quirky score, dashes of extreme gore and surprising nudity (that it’s not an 18 is somewhat surprising); but underneath all that it’s not a million miles away from your run-of-the-mill thriller.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with taking something standard and dressing it up all fancy-like. The film I often cite as my favourite ever, Se7en, is actually a bog standard police thriller when stripped to its storyline’s base elements, but the skill applied to it by filmmakers like David Fincher, Andrew Kevin Walker and Darius Khondji — not to mention the cast! — puts it on another level.
Trance is a tricksier film than that, though. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be, but that’s assuming you only want a film to be about its story. Here, it’s also about the games that are played in telling the story. As Dawson tries to access McAvoy’s memories through a kind of guided meditation, the film switches between the real world, the ‘dream’ world, and the character’s memories at will. Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle made a conscious decision not to denote these different states in any way — there’s no switching to black and white for dreams, for instance; nothing to definitively tell you which state you’re in. And this is a good thing, because when you need to know you can tell, and the rest of the time… well, the film’s playing with you. That’s the point. What is real and what is a scenario McAvoy’s being talked through? Are these memories what happened or the product of an addled mind?
It’s a complex experience that demands your brain power to navigate it successfully. Even when answers come, there are bits you might need to retrospectively piece together for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with a mystery film that answers its own mysteries, and I don’t think Trance disappoints in what those revelations are. Are they predictable? Everything’s predictable, if you predicted the right thing. Do you have to re-watch it to make sense of everything, or confirm it all for yourself? Not especially — it’s not The Sixth Sense, but I imagine there’d be value in watching it again knowing what every character is really up to.
That’s a credit to the actors as well as the filmmakers, incidentally. McAvoy and Dawson in particular give strong performances. The screenplay plays with our affections and opinions of them (and the other characters — no disrespect to third lead Cassel, who is also very good), but there’s a consistency to their portrayals, and an array of subtleties that are only properly revealed once we know everything, that is testament to a well-considered approach to the entire performance, as opposed to simply playing scenes in the way they seem to the first-time viewer.
Dod Mantle’s cinematography is also strikingly handsome. As noted, the film’s buzz had me expecting something akin to late-career Tony Scott, all jumpy and weirdly saturated and fragmented. Instead, as Boyle said, it’s actually very classical, but with a great eye. There are a number of shots which would look fabulous framed and hung on the wall, not least of the street outside Dawson’s flat at night, a restaurant next to intersecting train lines, and aerial photography of red-lit nighttime motorway junctions, looking like some kind of Rorschach test-esque psychiatrist’s tool.
By asking you to keep up through a plot and storytelling style that is deliberately twisty and confusing, but then giving you some pretty clear answers at the end, Trance seems to have pissed off a lot of people. Not so me. It’s an entertaining thrill ride and an intriguing psychological mystery wrapped up in one, provided you take it on its own terms.
Trance comes to Sky Movies Premiere from today at 9:35am and 9pm, and is also freshly available on demand through Sky Movies and Now TV.