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Psychological thriller 'Trance' hypnotizes with tale of obsession

Fox Searchlight

By Andrew McClure, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 22, 2013

The Psychological Thriller: an ambitious project for any filmmaker. Though most of them suck, and the label itself has grown a shitty connotation, they can compel if they’re resourceful with character depth, plot tangents and original insights. “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Memento” (2000) embody this formula to perfection. They confound and trip you up without ever losing grip of your mini attention span. “Trance” follows the formula, too, but inflates its details to overcapacity.

Director Danny Boyle (“127 Hours”) is no stranger to the collective audience gasp and cringe — think of the dead baby crawling on the ceiling in his “Trainspotting.” He disrupts any predictability in your emotions, as he did through his zombies in the scary-as-hell “28 Days Later” or the nerve-ripper, “127 Hours.” If you consider yourself unfeeling, Boyle will quash your streak. “Trance” allows him to enter an increasingly pertinent realm in these digital days: obsession.

Simon is an art auctioneer (James McAvoy, “X-Men: First Class”), and his secrets used to haunt him. Now, he’s golden and has forgotten the dirty past. In the event of a highly efficient heist to steal a priceless Goya painting, Simon’s ready to dodge the bullet. During his getaway, he receives a hard bludgeon to the brainpan — effectively unerasing certain erased memories. In other words, his brain goes berserk. Captured by the criminals, Simon is forced to sign up to see a shrink to hopefully unearth where he hid the Goya.

Immediately, Simon and his therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson, “Zookeeper”) share an inexplicable bond, as if they had once known each other. Eventually, Elizabeth catches on to the antics of Simon and confirms she “wants in” on the deal: extract the memory images inside Simon to lead them to the painting. Simple, right?

Simon’s thought patterns inundate themselves with images of Elizabeth, not the painting. An obsession, a mania, is underway. Now they all must play against the clock to save what might be long gone. But Elizabeth’s game of hypnosis distances them from reality, instead drifting into sub-realities that mask truth and adorn lies.

McAvoy essentially plays a toddler — always curious yet overwhelmingly ignorant of all actuality. He rarely progresses with his objective, literally freezing when he thinks of Elizabeth. One moment shows Simon getting electroshocked for every thought of Elizabeth; he convulses despite the nonexistent electroshocks. Yeah, he’s whipped. He wins the dual-role of maniac and mannequin, giving his manipulators precisely what they need.

Dawson tantalizes like that unattainable babysitter you crushed on in elementary school. She’s too smart for us, and her stoic face trivializes every toothy smile we “think” means something. Her motives could be ulterior, superior or entirely predictable — we’ll never know because she masters the art of “tease.” Insisting, “We keep secrets from ourselves, and that’s called forgetting,” Elizabeth doesn’t let us forget her.

“Trance” is a film about forgetting. Visually, Boyle ventures into a forgetful place, often revisiting unexplained dreamlike venues, blurring every other shot and flooding vivid rainbows into frames. The camera’s eye prefers whirlwind speeds and constant discomfort to poetic air-gliding. We careen into inner projections before realizing where we were originally. Boyle makes sure you’re always a tad puzzled but still antsy to battle onward.

Once the whodunit template tires out, the residue weighs more than three good actors in an OK movie tantamount to Soderbergh’s recent “Side Effects.” Rather, it corners us to entertain an everyday dilemma: Do you want to remember or forget? Both can hurt, but Boyle suggests thinking for yourself.