Is there a better director of opening sequences working right now than Danny Boyle? From the invigorating "Lust for Life"-scored chase scene that opens Trainspotting (a sequence that introduced a whole new generation to the pleasures of Iggy Pop and the dangers of heroin addiction) to Cillian Murphy's trek through a desolate, deserted London at the top of 28 Days Later to James Franco's preparations for his wilderness adventure in 127 Hours, Boyle seeks to command your attention from the very first frame. And even if the rest of the film fails to sustain the momentum and excitement of those initial minutes (a list that, for me at least, includes A Life Less Ordinary, Sunshine and -- Oscar be damned -- Slumdog Millionaire), the opening sequence often functions as an almost note-perfect mini-movie in and of itself. Boyle's latest picture, Trance, boasts yet another killer beginning, one that starts with a daring daylight auction house heist and ends with our ostensible hero, auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), getting knocked upside the head by the ostensible villain, robbery ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel). In its expert use of music, razor-sharp editing and overall propulsive energy, this sequence highlights in microcosm why Boyle is such a consistently exciting filmmaker... if only sometimes for ten to 15 minutes at a stretch.
I'm happy to report that Trance sustains itself for much longer than that, rocketing through a fantastic first hour and then crescendoing in a marvelous grand finale. It's only the middle that's something of a muddle, although it's entirely possible that this section of the film will play better with repeat viewings, particularly on DVD where viewers will have the chance to really study and break down the movie's many levels of reality. Because Trance is frequently operating on at least two or three levels at once, it pushes audiences even further down the rabbit hole than a movie like Inception. At least there, Christopher Nolan was careful to hold your hand throughout, explaining in detail (sometimes in too much detail) where exactly the characters were in relation to the "real" world. Boyle isn't as concerned with the specific details of his particular mind game, which kicks into gear when Simon wakes up from his blow to the head, which left him a minor case of amnesia. He remembers who he is -- as well as the fact that he was an accomplice in that heist sequence -- but he's completely forgotten the details of where he's stashed the exceedingly valuable painting (which, for the record, is Goya's "Witches in the Air") that Franck and his team enlisted him to help steal.
What's an art thief to do? Well, acting on the off-the-cuff advice of one of Simon's doctors, Franck escorts his partner/patsy to a hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) hoping that she might be able to kick loose the mental block in his brain. No agency-challenged idiot she, Elizabeth is quick to spot what's really going on and agrees to help the beleaguered heist crew in exchange for proper compensation, i.e. a taste of their Goya-based profits. But no one -- least of all Simon -- is entirely prepared for what happens when she starts digging around inside his head. Very quickly, all of the characters (along with the film itself) become unstuck in time, with reality and fantasy bleeding together in compelling, crazy and sometimes just plain confounding ways. Even if I wanted to spoil every detail of what happens in Act 2 (which I don't), I wouldn't be able to because Boyle and his screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge have designed such an intricate web of imagined realities. Quite honestly, midway through Trance I grew exhausted trying to keep track of whose mind we were in and found myself hoping for a little bit more stability. I can't help but wonder if the filmmakers similarly lost the thread of their own logic at a certain point, because before as a prelude to the mojo-recovering finale, one of the characters is required to mouth a lengthy monologue filled with late-inning exposition that explains key motivations and story details. The inclusion of this kind of lumpy "here's what's going on" speech is generally a pretty clear sign that film has outsmarted itself and is course-correcting lest it lose the audience altogether.
Fortunately, Boyle makes up for that prolonged bit of throat-clearing by staging a humdinger of a final sequence, one that's paired with a song that I still haven't been able to stop humming. (To make your own iTunes search easier, the title is "Here It Comes" written and performed by Emelli Sandé and Rick Smith.) Beyond bringing this twisty tale to a satisfying -- yet still open-ended -- conclusion, the finale succeeds because it allows the movie's secret weapon to unveil herself in full. I'm speaking, of course, about Rosario Dawson, who gets the role of her career her and tears into it without fear or hesitation. (And yes, that is -- in part -- code for "Some nudity is involved.") A bombshell with more brains and brawn than Hollywood often gives her credit for (she would have been --and still could be -- a fantastic Wonder Woman), Dawson eases her way slowly into Trance, initially allowing the conflict between McAvoy and Cassel (both of whom are also quite good, by the by) to occupy the foreground, only gradually revealing that Elizabeth is the person in full control of the proceedings. It's a fully-realized performance that's instrumental in creating the strongest, most complex female character from a director who is usually more comfortable in the company of dudes. Boyle gets Trance off to his usual strong start, but it's Dawson who keeps the film afloat in its darkest (second) hour.
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