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"Trance," now playing, stars James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.
"Trance," now playing, stars James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.

"Trance" teases, but then tires the brain

I’d like to think I’m a fairly smart guy (when it comes to movies, not calculus or anything like that), but "Trance" eludes me. "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle creates a puzzle in which each piece is another, smaller puzzle, and every couple of minutes, the pieces change shape, and you have to start all over again. It’s a fairly exhilarating experience at first, but by the end, that exhilaration turns into exhaustion. But it’s still an experience.

The movie certainly gets off to a crackling start. Simon (James McAvoy) is a fine art auctioneer and the inside man for a band of thieves, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel from "Black Swan"), hoping to steal a valuable Goya painting. He manages to nab the painting, but during the heist, he gets knocked in the head and wakes up forgetting where he put the prize.

After politely asking and then not-so politely pulling out Simon’s fingernails, Franck proposes a new solution: sending Simon to a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) who will unlock the secrets in his brain. However, there are more secrets tucked away inside Simon’s noggin than just the location of the painting, and the hypnotist might have her own motives for tinkering around with Simon’s brain.

"Trance" hooks the audience almost immediately with a furious flurry of excitement. Boyle drops the viewers right into Simon’s brain as he talks about the history of art thievery, the security measures of his establishment and how he intends to foil them. With its dark wry humor, criminal underworld menace and snappy pace, the first act plays like a Guy Ritchie caper that graduated from the grimy streets to the art house, mixed with a healthy serving of Boyle’s signature kinetic edits and saturated color scheme. 

When the film moves into the hypnotist’s über-modern office and Simon’s amnesia-addled mind, however, it turns into an even more complicated version of "Inception." Writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (the latter wrote many of Boyle’s early hits, including "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting") continually pile on the twists, backstabbings, dream realities and revelations.

It’s a fun, intricate little puzzle at first, but after a while, the constant plot turns and detours leave the viewer disoriented and exhausted. It gets progressively more difficult to care about our characters (all well-acted, mind) and what’s happening when the movie’s maze-like trail of breadcrumbs continually leads to dead ends. When Boyle and company’s befuddling roller coaster eventually chugs to a stop, they seem aware that they’ve lost most of the audience, forcing the script to spend most of the last act having Dawson sloppily explain what the hell just happened.

The saddest part? Even with Dawson holding the audience’s hand, true answers are few and unsatisfying.

The ride ends up not particularly engrossing, but thanks to Boyle’s direction, "Trance" is at least interesting. Every time the story’s convolutions threaten to drag the movie down, he summons a memorable image or sequence ­– a man getting buried alive, a corpse talking despite missing everything from the nose up – that made me wish I cared more.

His hyperstylized visuals also actually fit with the film’s surreal mental hijinx, unlike in his last film, "127 Hours," in which his antsy storytelling and visuals clashed with the isolation and tedium of Aron Ralston’s experience. There, he was a burden. Here, he’s a boon. In the hands of a less adventurous director, "Trance" could’ve been a dull exercise in confused frustration instead of an intriguing exercise in confused frustration.

I imagine "Trance" falls into the category of movies that make more sense after repeated showings, but frankly, it doesn’t leave me with much reason to return. A good puzzle makes you want to finish the entire thing and fill in every gap, even when you know what the final image will be. "Trance" is a puzzle you tinker around with for a while and, after putting a few border pieces together, put it back in the box. A movie should make you feel more than just a sense of accomplishment. 


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