TRANCE Review: Head Games
In July of 2012, I participated in a blogathon: The Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made. The premise of the event was to choose a film that legendary director Alfred Hitchcock DIDN’T make, but has the same feel or style of a Hitchcock film. My choice was Bryan Singer‘s The Usual Suspects. In the piece, I talk about how compelling some of the villains in Hitch’s films are, and then draw comparisons to Singer’s film.
But that was last summer, and if that blogathon were happening tomorrow, I would be very tempted to choose instead Danny Boyle‘s Trance, a taut cross between art heist film and psychological thriller that would find a comfortable spot in Hitch’s swing zone.
James McAvoy plays Simon, an auctioneer at a London auction house, whose specialty is fine art. At the open of the film, Simon explains, via voiceover and a little fourth wall-breaking, the procedures involved in the event of an art heist. Part of the procedures involve grabbing the most valuable item you can reach and getting it to safety via a predetermined route. However, the main rule is, “Don’t Be a Hero,” the justification of which, and rightfully so, is that no work of art is worth a human life.
This, of course, sets the stage for a heist at the latest auction, as well-orchestrated by Frank (Vincent Cassel). But when Frank confronts Simon where Simon leasts expects Frank to be, Simon ignores the “Don’t Be a Hero” rule and attempts to subdue Frank.
All that gets Simon for his troubles is a rifle stock to the head, which winds up creating more headaches for Frank. It turns out (and this really isn’t a spoiler in the truest sense because it happens so early in the film) that the heist is an inside job and that Simon is the key part of the gig, but the blow to the head gives Simon amnesia, so he is unable to divulge the location of the (most valuable) stolen painting. Enter Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist chosen by Simon to help him remember. What follows is a series of events that are never quite what they seem, with a resolution that occurs during the final scene of the film.
If only I could divulge more, but to do so would lead me down a slippery slope of having to divulge everything, and I wouldn’t want to do that to anyone. What Boyle and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge have created is a remarkably tight story in a world that is no bigger than it needs to be, with enough action to do the narrative justice.
One of my concerns coming out of Oscar season was the running time of many of the nominees. It’s not that I had had my fill of 2+ hour films, it’s just that I wondered if tight, succinct storytelling was going the way of broader, sweeping stories (not quite epics, but certainly something close to it). Thus far this year, Stoker had registered under two hours, but the film’s subject matter seemed to limit its potential to run something like a 140-minute endurance race. So when Trance landed at the local-ish theater, with its art heist/psycho-thriller mash-up, I thought it certainly had the potential to spend a lot of time on set-up, and too-cute-by-half theft scenes, and maybe even a big car chase or two to pad the running time.
I’m thrilled to say this isn’t the case. From the moment the film starts it is never dull, and it’s almost as if Boyle challenged himself to tell this story in 101 minutes and then figured out the way to do it without leaving gaping plot holes or using cheats to advance the story in order to keep up with the clock. Thanks to what must have been planning with meticulousness equal to that of an actual art heist, Boyle has a start time and an end time, and he keeps his foot evenly (yet heavily) on the gas to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible, all the while keeping the viewer guessing.
And keeping the viewer guessing is key to the film’s success. Unlike some films, which ask more questions than they answer, this film simultaneously offers explanations to both Simon and the viewer, while dangling clues to the next bit of information found in the next layer of Simon’s subconscious. In fact, I reached a point when I was watching this film that I started taking note of every detail, wondering what bit of information would payoff in the next scene, or the scene after that, or the scene after that. And every bit of information paid off eventually. It really is quite a feat in filmmaking; how Boyle wasn’t tempted to take this in other (read: easier, cheaper) directions shows both his skills as a director and Hollywood’s respect for him as a filmmaker. (All of it also shows the deftness of editor Jon Harris, without whom the film could become so maddeningly confusing.)
There is even efficiency in the characters, as Trance is ultimately a film about three people – Simon, Frank, and Elizabeth – with the smattering of supporting characters there simply to fill basic needs. McAvoy is good as Simon, the double-crosser with the fractured mind. Whether baffled by his lot or in control of his destiny, he never oversells it. On the other hand, Dawson is a complete non-starter. What I think was supposed to pass for cooly manipulative from her instead resonated as either bored or disinterested. Given how critical her character is to the film, its a testament to Boyle that she didn’t bring the whole thing down. As for Cassel, he is mesmerizing. He owns every scene he’s in, but not in one of those scene-chewing ways. He has a presence, a charisma to him that is difficult to quantify but impossible to deny. I don’t know that he could ever carry a film on his own, but if he continues to take roles like these, we will be a better audience for it.
So much of this film has what I would expect from Hitchcock – intrigue, thrills, suspense, a tight story, and second-guessing of second-guessing. But if there is one thing this movie is missing that most Hitchcock films have, it’s a good guy. There’s no denying that everyone in this film is bad, but the big reveal – like Singer’s big reveal about Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects – is the one that lets the viewer know not who is bad, but who is worst. But even when that reveal was made, it never felt gimmicky; the closing credits rolled and I found myself thinking, “Of course. That makes perfect sense.”
One other mark of Hitchcock’s better work is its re-watchability. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen how many Hitchcock films, but I can tell you this: I will re-watch Trance the first chance that I get.