Danny Boyle’s 2013 overlooked indie is a hypnotic thriller that will keeping you guessing until the very end.
There’s a drawing everybody has seen by an artist nobody remembers. The drawing is called All Is Vanity and it is over a hundred years old. I don’t think the illustration is as highly regarded as other famous works of art—like the Mona Lisa, American Gothic or The Persistence of Memory—but it’s definitely as iconic and it almost certainly evokes a more profound reaction. This drawing is distinct because it utilizes a double image to create an optical illusion, and the illusion is striking because it is a representation of death.
In All Is Vanity, a pretty woman sits before a mirror and stares at her reflection. It’s a pleasant image that slowly turns grim when the observer adjusts their perspective to realize the elements of the illustration resemble a pale skull. It’s both a cool effect and an unsettling experience. All Is Vanity is not a tradition illusion like the Rubin vase (a vase or two faces). It is a memento mori or symbolic reminder of mortality. The illustration has been carefully designed so that everyone notices the woman before the skull. First time viewers may even be anticipating the illusion but everyone always feels a shift in tone from the amiable to the macabre. This is the closest analogy I could come up with to describe my feelings after viewing Danny Boyle’s psychological thriller Trance. It’s an enjoyable but duplicitous thriller that unpredictably flips and completely alters the audience’s preconceptions.
Trance stars James McAvoy (the X Men franchise’s new Professor Charles Xavier) aka Ewan McGregor 2.0 as an art auctioneer who helps a group of thieves steal a rare painting, double crosses them and then forgets where he stashed the valuable portrait after he suffers an unanticipated head wound. Now, with the secret location of the painting locked in his subconscious the thieves force McAvoy to seek the aid of a hypnotherapist (played by Rosario Dawson) in an effort to recover their prize. Can McAvoy outsmart the thieves, find the painting and get the girl? Is Rosario Dawson a friend or a temptress that will keep the painting for herself? Are some characters acting out of free will or have they incepted with post-hypnotic suggestion? Is the entire movie a dream? You can’t help but try to solve this puzzle as you watch but that would be like trying to guess the name of the woman in All Is Vanity—you’d be missing the point.
Trance is definitely a thriller with a twist but unlike The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense the reaction is less “Aha!” and more “Oh my God”. It’s definitely a movie I needed to watch twice to fully appreciate but not to catch clues that foreshadow a reveal. I don’t think it’s possible to predict the ending of the movie (I’ve got friends who are actually proud of that skill — “I knew he was a ghost the whole time!”) and that’s what made it so refreshing. Trance is like a cinematic Nazca Line—those pre-Columbian glyphs that can only be observed from the sky. You watch the movie from the ground and then slowly rise into the air before you finally understand the whole of what you’ve been watching. I rewatched Trance to appreciate how a skilled filmmaking can turn a simple story into a complex mystery with little more than perspective. Trance is a game of cat and mouse that plays out for both the characters and the audience as they begin to question agendas, motivations and even reality.
Reelization: Trance is directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Steve Jobs, Trainspotting) and is technically stunning with some very strong performances from James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson. The lighting, production design and cinematography is highly stylized and evocative of a painting itself. Trance is very much a Neo Film-Noir with all the tropes of a crime thriller: Dutch-angles, extreme close-ups, reflections, an investigation, a stolen valuable, a femme fatale, an obsession with the past however Boyle ingeniously twists these elements to defy expectations. Trance is rated R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence, Language and one unforgettable Grisly Image that could be considered the skull in All Is Vanity.
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