Thursday, 4 April 2013

Trance: Inception without the simplicity

When I was talking about Inception some time back, I was particularly struck by how straightforward the narrative was. You're supposed to end up not quite knowing what's happened, but at any given moment in the movie, you feel like you know what's happening right now. Danny Boyle went another way with Trance, and from about half way into the movie, it's genuinely hard to figure out who's messing with whose head, other than the certainty that Danny Boyle is messing with the audience's head.

The movie starts off in a pretty straightforward way, with a wonderfully minimalist art heist being narrated to us by James McAvoy. About halfway through his matter of fact explanation of how his auction house prevents thefts, even the slowest members of the audience should have realised that he's explaining how he's subverted all the protections so that the theft can happen anyhow. The plot's neat and simple, and a defining moment is how the gang makes sure that the squad of heavies in the van outside can't come and interfere with their work; they back up a G-Wiz electric car to the doors of the van and leave it there. Doors won't open, heavy gang are stuck in the van. You'd think people would anticipate that kind of problem, but in the 1980s, the British army bought an armoured personnel carrier with exit doors that were too heavy to open from inside unless the vehicle was parked nose up and gravity could lend a hand.

Since no movie heist ever goes according to plan, before very long the wheels come off the scheme, as McAvoy double-crosses his accomplices and gets hit so hard on his head that he can't remember the details of the double cross afterwards. The accomplices try torturing the location of the loot of him, but get nowhere, and so they hire a hypnotist to try to hypnotise him into remembering it. And almost immediately, the lines around reality start to get blurry. 

Now, I could try to explain the various fakeouts and wheels within wheels, but to do that, I'd have to have some confidence that I knew myself what the hell was happening. It all feels pretty clear at first, but as the hypnotist quietly takes more and more control off the other characters, it gets harder and harder to figure out how much is opportunism, how much is hallucination and how much is a ludicrously impossible deep laid plan. 

Like Danny Boyle's first movie, Shallow Grave, Trance is effectively an intricate and deadly dance among three main characters who are all trying to rip the others off. James McAvoy's Simon is plainly completely untrustworthy; not only did he screw his employers by organising a theft on the premises, he then screwed his accomplices by trying to keep the ill-gotten gains for himself. Franck, the criminal kingpin, is plainly mad bad and dangerous to know; on the one hand, he's tortured McAvoy and will probably kill him the minute he gets his hands on the loot; on the other hand, he's being played by Vincent Cassel, who is pretty much the Walton Goggins of France, except not as likely to be playing anyone remotely sane. Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth, the hypnotist, gets scarier and scarier the longer she's on the screen. There are other characters, including poor old Tuppence Middleton in a thankless role as either a passer-by or a hallucination, but the three leads are doing all the heavy lifting, and the movie works because they work so hard; even while it's not making a button of sense. And it's a great looking movie; Boyle has always been good at the visuals, but he holds back from the outright lunacy which made Sunshine feel like a jammed DVD for its climax.

When you get a movie this intentionally confusing, there's always the temptation to believe that it would be worth while to sit down and watch it again, and try to see if there's anything inconspicuous in the early moments which resolves the puzzles of the ending, but with Trance, I suspect that a second viewing would just make the confusion worse. I watched Inception again recently, and was surprised how well it stands up to a second viewing, largely because it balances the complexity of its theme with simplicity in execution. Trance would probably just get more baffling with repeated viewings, as the dreams within dreams start to trip over each other. The early manoeuvres don't make sense when you think about them at the end of the movie, and I've got a feeling that this would only get worse if you watched it again knowing where each character was going to wind up.

The film does have two really solid set pieces at each end; the robbery at the beginning is tense and perfectly paced, and the final confrontation between Simon, Franck and Elizabeth is a claustrophobic masterpiece and one of the scariest uses of a burning car that I've ever seen in a movie. Trance is a quality product all the way through; it's just that it doesn't make enough sense once the pressure lets up and you get the chance to think about what's been happening.

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