“Do not be a hero.” So instructed by his employer, a fine-art auction house in London, Simon (James McAvoy) goes on to explain to you how he means not to be. This over a series of elegant shots of art and the special space where art is housed, however temporarily, beautifully edited to a slick dance music beat. The security is tight and precise, the cameras are everywhere, the doors automatic and the hallways monitored. “But in the event of an event or a situation,” Simon says, “a piece of art is a piece of art,” and not worth a human life.
Simon’s explanation opens Trance, Danny Boyle’s new psychological thriller. Simon sounds and looks in control, aware of the stakes and the structures of his business, and also eloquent concerning its limits. Art is inspiring and meaningful and expensive, but it is art, not life. Being a hero in its defense is not his job. All that said, not being a hero becomes his life. How this happens is the puzzle that shapes the movie, as Simon and the art thieves—for there are, of course, art thieves—come into conflict. This conflict is sometimes clever and mostly silly, as the film constructs an elaborate version—make that versions—of what’s inside Simon’s mind.
It’s not unusual that a narrator provides a perspective on a plot or even an architecture for it. What Trance does slightly differently is to make that architecture changeable, uncertain and elusive. Even as Simon tells you his story, that story dissipates, giving way to other versions, other perspectives, and other structures.
As intriguing as this fluidity may sound, Trance motivates it with a concrete-ish plot point, when Simon is taken to see a hypnotist such that he might recover his apparently lost memory of the theft of a painting. It happens that this painting is Goya’s Witches in the Air, a choice that suggests more than a couple of plot points to follow. And it happens that it is stolen by a gang headed by Franck, who is played by the irrepressible Vincent Cassel, a work of art in himself. Cassel’s performance, even as he’s surrounded by his thugs, invites your sympathy with Franck, even if the gangster himself seems a bit brutal and maybe not as on top of things as you’d like.
When the stolen painting goes missing, Franck decides that Simon knows more about what’s happened than he’s willing or able to say, a decision that leads more or less directly to appointments with Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). These appointments are at once awkward and intriguing. Leading you to think you might know more than you do, as Elizabeth is astute enough regarding the gangsters’ goofy efforts to listen in (they’re assembled in a car outside, listening to a shorting-out discussion via a mic attached to Simon’s sweaty chest) that she seems yet another likely point of entry, a third subject with whom you might identify, or at least come to understand.
That none of these three charismatic subjects is quite a conventional hero underscores Simons’ early assertion, and Trance appears at first to be a film about films, or a dream about dreams, much in the way that Inception, for all its traditional melodrama and corporate espionage, was about films. Trance is both more and less unwieldy than Chris Nolan’s vision, without the collapsing walls and layered timelines, but with trap doors and surveillance cameras and iPads. In his trances, Simon imagines his lost memory as a thing in a package, a thing he might hold and observe, a thing he can carry off and keep hidden from others.
Those others do a bit of poking, as they treat Simon as an object too, a thing they might abuse and tie down, a thing they might induce to spit up the information they want. That pop psychologizing that Elizabeth runs on all the guys might hint at the film’s own treatment of its subjects and you too: she tells the thugs they must also be hypnotized, in order to act out Simon’s fantasy that they can be vulnerable (“exposed” is her term) and he can be powerful (or feel he’s not the only one who’s afraid). She tells Franck he has to trust and also pay her, because, well, they must at least pretend to have a partnership in order to alarm and also assuage Simon. And she tells Simon that he must commit murder, in order to save himself.
It may go without saying that none of Elizabeth’s instructions are quite so compelling as that first one, for the more she tries to control outcomes, or “help” Simon or Franck, or protect herself from her ruthless criminal associates, the more mayhem and also order emerge. If Goya used familiar figures to suggest nightmares, figures like witches and demons, he also made them eerie and unfamiliar, haunting. Trance does not haunt, it orchestrates. Even as the movie looks at first to be about the sort of self-delusions that dreams and witches and movies might conjure, it lands on a much less nuanced assertion of right and wrong, with some subjects punished and others redeemed. The witches, meanwhile, remain elusive.