Danny Boyle has talent to burn. "Train Spotting?" Sheer genius. "Slumdog Millionaire?" Oscar-nabbing sensation. "127 Hours?" Exquisite, if also exquisitely uncomfortable.
But then there's "Sunshine," Boyle's horror movie in space, which is sheer visual splendor married to a misshapen script (though with some ambitious metaphysical overtones). And now we get "Trance," a muddled movie that tries to distract the audience from its fundamental silliness with switchback twists and turns but ends up running in circles.
The needlessly convoluted story is essentially one about an inside art heist gone wrong. Emblematic of the film's central flaw, the robbers lose track of the painting in mid-theft, much like the viewer is apt to lose track of what the hell is going on here. The only one who might know what's happened to the missing painting -- a Goya canvas titled "Flying Witches" -- is Simon (James McAvoy), but after suffering a knock on the head he's lost his memory of the robbery and the events immediately following.
When physical torture doesn't work, the thieves' ringleader, a charismatic tough named Franck (Vincent Cassel), switches to psychological finesse, sending Simon to a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson). But this leads to new complications in an already-complicated situation. Elizabeth is beautiful, smart, and fearless; she sees right through Simon's flimsy cover story of lost car keys. Before long, she has insinuated herself right into the middle of the nest of thieves, where she and Franck co-exist in uneasy sexual tension. The question arises, as it must: Is Elizabeth helping Simon out of a doctor's concern for her patient? Or is she manipulating everyone for her own gain?
When the movie's not self-consciously twisting itself into ever more labyrinthine tangles, it has some clever art-centric observations and gags to make. But writers Joe Ahearne and John Hodge have thoroughly over-yolked the tempera: There's just too much going on, too much hide-and-seek, too much narrative double dealing, and it's not as though Boyle himself doesn't know this and signal it with endless use of reflections and other stylistic choices that indicate layer on layer of sham and illusion.
There is some attempt to tie the film's structure in with an underlying theme of the vagaries of recollection, and the way the mind fills in blanks or skips over events and then knits memory's narrative together after the fact. In practice, this means that we're shown scenes one way at the outset, and then confronted with those same scenes in altered form later on, now with crucial information. At other times, however, the film lapses into sheer hallucination. Either would risk puncturing the film's believability; together, these filmic techniques feel like cheating -- worse, they come across as creatively cheap. It's one thing to present puzzle pieces in a way that mystifies the viewer until the final piece snaps into place; it's another to spring game-changers on the audience like a Jack in the Box.
Boyle brings his directorial magic to the project, and fulfills the implicit mandate to make this film look painterly. Even Boyle's masterful skills cannot shape this garish material into something harmonious and unified. And "Trance" simply settles for the usual cop-outs: Fireballs, last-minute twists that come across as random, and an ending that's not an ending at all, but a coy tease.
If you emerge from this movie feeling as though you're coming out of something, it won't be a trance as much as a jumbled dream. Luckily, like a dream, the movie fades quickly from your memory. The movie gets this much right: Sometimes forgetting really is a blessing.