(Danny Boyle, 2013)
Some directors foreground their own style to what can be a distracting extent. Some do it for a reason, some are capable of expressing a thematic point through the stylistic devices they favour (though that is true of a depressingly small number), and some just like to keep a film visually and rhythmically interesting.
Danny Boyle, say, announced himself after a lengthy apprenticeship in British television, and his 1994 debut Shallow Grave bears some evidence of that experience. It is interior, carefully composed, sensitive to the pulses and gradations of its characters experiences. At the same time, it is obviously the work of a director bursting with exitement at the possibilities of the cinematic medium. That excitement bubbled over in his breakthrough smash, Trainspotting, from the next year. That film is full of tricks and devices, and feels like it was made by somebody who loved Scorsese's Goodfellas, pilfering many of the techniques on show in that film and using them to varying effect.
Since then, Boyle has gone back and forth. Sometimes extremely ostentatious in his directorial choices to the extent that he resembles Oliver Stone (minus the pompous politicising) at his worst - Slumdog Millionaire, for instance, or 127 Hours are both irritating for the barrage of film stocks, the hyperactivity of the editing, the use of music reminiscent of advertisements and trailers - he can also simplify his style given the right material. The dogma-esque horror of 28 Days Later and quiet comedy of Millions show a filmmaker suppressing his own ego for the good of his story. The former, along with another collaboration with writer Alex Garland, the sci-fi Sunshine, suggest that Boyle is best in the bold stories of genre territory where his style can serve and decorate narrative rather than defacing it, as is too often the case in drama.
Trance, therefore, should be a good fit for him. A heist thriller, it follows Auction-house employee Simon (James McAvoy) after a £27 million painting is stolen from his workplace by gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his mob. Simon, struggling with massive gambling debts, was in on the theft, but an injury during the incident leaves him with partial amnesia, and the painting is missing. Desperate to recover it, Franck engages hypno-therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to help Simon extract the information from his own mind. But Elizabeth seems to be working her own agenda, and Simon's memories are more complex than they at first appear...
For much of the first hour or so, Trance is a perfectly middling Brit-thriller with some dark humour and stylish photography. The characters are familiar and not too interesting or sympathetic, and the script is a little tin-eared and obvious. The three charismatic leads keep it watchable despite this. And then it delves into psychology and the twists begin. Boyle's direction and editing get hallucinatory, dream-sequences seep into reality and the revelations start to rip into the story.
The final one of these is a bit of a rug-pull, and I can imagine some viewers will feel cheated by what it does to the story and the dynamic of the relationships between our central trio. But since I didn't care remotely about any of these characters - all movie-people, with little authentic or true about them - I enjoyed the last act more than the rest of the film. It flies along, adds some recognisably human behaviour to the relationship between two of the characters (up until then every exchange has felt like the kind of thing that only happens in movies) and for once, the rippling of fantasy, flashback and trance-states flicking through the story more or less excuses Boyle his stylistic tics. Here, those include heavy use of filters and distorted lenses together with the usual disoriented editing and a few nightmarish effects shots.
The repositioning of sympathy triggered by the last revelation, in particular, is probably the most interesting thing about the film. Of the leads, Dawson has the most interesting material, McEvoy is a watchable presence but a little shallow, and Cassel does a variation on roles he has played before, all of which suggest the problem of the first couple of acts. The film they constitute is mildly fun but also somewhat rote, set in a London without much sense of place (surprising from Boyle, who is usually very good in this regard) and centred on characters without much depth to them.
That it needs such severe narrative whiplash to become vaguely interesting, then, can be seen as a criticism of Trance, but it is also the thing that makes it worthwhile.