The payoff for solving puzzle films is a collaborative rush — in working out the filmmakers' jigsaws, viewers are invited into the moviemaking process. Look at the uber-combative message boards about Primer, or brave the theorizing of Room 237, the docu-analysis of The Shining. One sub-genre of puzzle films — the studio-backed head-scratcher — doesn't see additions all that frequently, as bottom-line minded execs surely view the multiplex as a respite from intellectual workouts, not another forum for them.
Nevertheless, the mounds of cash Inception raked in have mattered — recently we've had The Adjustment Bureau, Looper, and now Danny Boyle's Trance cooking our noodles al dente. Trance, which belongs alongside Inception in the rarefied sub-sub-genre of inside-the-mind puzzler, is nothing if the most eccentric of the bunch; it's the only film in recent memory — or perhaps ever — to warn us that depictions of pubic hair can ruin paintings.
If rules-and-order-governed Inception is the intellectual law student at the party, and self-consciously fun The Adjustment Bureau is the pudgy dude who'll dance with anybody, Trance is the really loud guy who won't stop yelling about how 9/11 was an inside job: It's got an awfully serious delivery, but the graver it gets, the sillier it becomes.
The guy positing that pubic hair is an artistic dead-end is Simon (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer. He narrates a whiz-bang opening sequence demonstrating his employer's fastidious security protocols. This assault-of-the-senses intro reassures the viewer that yes, we have entered the realm of 127 Hours director Danny Boyle, who is again aggressive in displaying his restless talents, incorporating black-and-white photography, canted angles, throbbing electronica, and fourth-wall breakage. The opening isn't likely to win any converts, but fans will rest assured knowing their $12 has been earned.
Boyle's direction, chaotic yet carefully orchestrated, keeps pumping as the inevitable impossible robbery occurs. Gangster Franck (Vincent Cassel, possessor of a great bad-guy face) absconds with a Goya. Or not. Upon realizing his getaway bag is empty, Frank must determine what happened to the painting, with Simon's help — for the robbery was a job they teamed on. Trance's plausibility starts to wear here: How, exactly, did mild-mannered Simon find the cojones for an inside job?
A blow Simon sustained during the hold-up has caused amnesia; with no clue where he stashed the painting, the thieves are left Goya-less. After torturing Simon, Franck (and the director) resorts to an even more desperate measure: hypnotherapy. If you've ever wanted to see a therapist sit a bunch of gangsters down and soothingly suggest, "Let's talk about killing," you're in luck. The beautiful Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) will induce hypnosis to help — for a cut. Of course, femme fatale Elizabeth has a deeper angle.
Trance is built around set pieces in Simon's dreamlike unconscious. It's a juicy opportunity for Boyle to engage in much visual gamesmanship, with endless fields of sunflowers and glimpses of a man being buried alive among his most compelling conjurings. Yet Boyle's hyperactivity is a problem, as the sequences' abstraction and haphazardness — heads are blown off but keep talking, characters morph into other characters — prevent them from developing narrative stakes. Unlike Inception's dream world, which doled out rules and keys to understanding it, Trance's is never imbued with any structure or meaning. Anything goes, which may make all this great fun for the hallucinogenically inclined, but since nothing in these sequences has any lasting consequences, suspense is difficult to amplify.
Not that this thriller lacks in tension. Trance packs many reveals, and the guessing game of who's who and what's what continues throughout. But with its terribly campy setup (hypnotherapy and gangsters? One's inner child and murderous showdowns?), Trance could have gotten some mileage out of comedy; the film is under the mistaken impression that its unmoored trance sequences are compelling enough to justify their implausibility. In one scene, Elizabeth puts Franck and his tough-as-nails henchmen into a fearful trance, in order to teach Simon that it's okay to embrace vulnerability. If getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings pop-psychology played out by vicious thugs sounds like it could be funny, well, you'd be right — but the scene is played straight, leaving the viewer unsure how seriously the filmmakers take their premise. That's a puzzle you can't solve on your own.