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The Fascinating Failure of Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’

Who knew A-list directors were so into erotic thrillers? First came Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, in which the retiring filmmaker brought his cool gaze and offhand naturalism to a story that was, he openly admitted, in the grand tradition of Fatal Attraction and Jagged Edge. And now we have Trance, in which Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle does the sleek-and-sexy dance, as Rosario Dawson falls in and out of James McAvoy and Vincent Cassell’s impeccably designed, neon-lit beds. It’s trashy fun, to a point, but what’s most intriguing about stacking Boyle and Soderbergh’s films up against each other is how they succeed and fail in very nearly the same fashion: compelling setup, terrific vibe, lousy payoff.

The picture opens with a crackerjack set piece, a daring broad-daylight robbery of an art auction. The object of desire is a Goya painting, its value in the millions, and the process is related directly to camera by Simon (McAvoy), an auction house employee and, we quickly discover, the job’s inside man. Boyle and editor Jon Harris have a blast letting the tumblers fall into place, mixing brisk cuts, hot music, and peculiar cutaways to McAvoy’s sly gaze. What’s he up to?

We discover soon enough. Somewhere along the line, Simon swiped the painting for himself, but a tussle with Franck (Cassel), the leader of the thieves, leaves him with a concussion, unable to remember exactly what he did with it. Thus enters Elizabeth (Dawson), a hypnotherapist who can, it seems, dig out the secret when Simon “goes under.” But she quickly realizes how valuable this information is, and carves out a slice for herself. And then it gets complicated.

The script, by Joe Ahearne (adapting his 2001 British TV movie) and Boyle’s regular screenwriter John Hodge, delights in its twists and turns, smashing one big reveal into the next, and to some degree, the story warrants it: the recovery of Simon’s memories gives them the opportunity to tinker with various layers of perception and levels of reality, and Boyle imaginatively visualizes the fantasy scenarios that Elizabeth walks Simon into.

But it ultimately gets to a point where they’re just yanking our chain. Boyle evokes the ghost of Hitchcock with the character of Elizabeth, who immediately recalls Ingrid Bergman’s cool-headed shrink in Spellbound, but this character is almost like an inverse of that one — the more we know about her, the less interesting she gets. There may be no great American actress as egregiously underused these days as Dawson, and she brings a biting intelligence and understated toughness to her early scenes. But the deeper she gets into the muck of the tale, the more she’s just a cog in the plot’s machinery.

It’s not that I don’t think Boyle knows, by the time things start to get really bananas in the second half, that his movie is silly. I’m jut not convinced that he ever decided how he felt about it. There are utterly outrageous scenes that he plays totally straight — but they’re more interesting that way, and frankly wouldn’t go over at all with a wink and a nudge. But by the time the film reaches its preposterously over-the-top fire and fury climax, his insistence on taking the happenings onscreen even remotely seriously feels like a refusal to acknowledge reality.

Boyle is one of our most consistently watchable directors, and he attempts to do something genuinely interesting in Trance, to find oblique angles from which to approach compelling but ultimately ridiculous material. It doesn’t quite work, but hey, points for trying.

Trance is out tomorrow in limited release.