Danny Boyle's always had a way of tethering tension onscreen, keeping the audience on the edge while holding back just enough. Think of the calm serenity among the crew aboard the spaceship in Sunshine as it voyages uncertainly toward the sun on a mission to save an ice-encased Earth, or the pot head Eden in The Beach who ultimately erupts into Lord of the Flies savagery, and even before James Franco's adventure seeker in 127 Hours gets pinned under the cruelest of all boulders, there's a forbidding pall that hangs over him even as he frolics with two nubile hikers in a remote canyon pool.
Trance comes out of the gate a bit meaner as a midday hold-up of a London auction house goes somewhat sideways and the coveted object of the heist, Goya's "Witches in Air," winds up missing. It turns out Simon (James McAvoy), one of the auctioneers, is in cahoots with the robbers, but because he took a gun butt to the head during the robbery, he can't remember where the Goya's stashed.
The mastermind of the hold-up, a determined psychopath with reasonable manners named Franck (the angular Vincent Cassel, and the name's pronounced close enough to Frank in case you were wondering) is pretty unsettled by the snag, so when he finally takes Simon's word for truth, the only apparent solution is a hypnotherapist. Franck wires Simon not only to keep him on a short leash, but also, since Simon will be under, to glean the utterance of the painting's whereabouts.
The first session doesn't produce much, only where Simon's mislaid his car keys, and during the second session, the hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) catches a glimmer of the wire. Instead of going to the police, Elizabeth calls out Franck (through the wire) and lets him know she's onto his game, but will aid in the cause for a cut of the action. Through ensuing sessions, the pieces building up to the heist and the heist itself become more clear, but there's more that comes out as well that gives the film an added (and needed) layer of complexity; like the fact that Simon and Elizabeth have a past (one that he doesn't recall and one she's coy about), and in her grand master plan to get Simon to relax so they can elicit the Goya's locale, she recommends that Franck and his lot go under as well.
And so as new revelations come to light during the therapy sessions (told in slick backtracked vignettes), events and their bigger context get continually reshuffled as does the balance of power among the three principals. There's ample sexual tension too. With the lovely and undervalued Dawson (who has never quite gotten the roles she's been deserving of) in the middle, that's no surprise, but with the authorities on the hunt and edgy underlings chomping at the bit, who has time for sex?
It seems that sex is important after all, as the neatly shaved southern region of a woman's body presented with a glabrous pucker proves to be the key to unlocking the ever elusive truth. (No joke, and if you don't believe me, Google "Rosario Dawson" and "General").
The screenwriters, Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, clearly have mastered the Rubik's Cube. They twist and rearrange tirelessly and send the action off in every direction imaginable without hitting a wall. By the end they have taken every opening presumption, tossed it on its head, and shot it full of holes. The film also benefits from the lush, heavy blue textured cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle, who collaborated with Boyle on numerous projects including Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, and most importantly, the three leads who play the game of cat and mouse littered with the pitfalls of false memories and poor perceptions, with a deft somberness and urgency that underscores and hones their chemistry.
Amid all the slick sexy glitz, the film's biggest detraction may be Boyle himself. With Oscar winners, gritty cult classics and modern noirs to his credit, the expectation for perfection, or at least a change-up that will daunt, is a burdensome cross to bear. In the end however, the memory device does not reap the bounty of fleshy fruit it promised. What's missing is the masterful denouement that cements the entirety of what came before the way Christopher Nolan's brain bending Memento did, or even Hitchcock's Spellbound.
There's rapture in Boyle's noirish foray into the den of thieves, no doubt, but like the hypnotic spell its memory-addled protagonist oft goes under, once the fingers are snapped and the subject is brought back to reality, there's a shining moment of bright clarity and little to remember.