"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
The bravado opening to "Trance," the seductive but ultimately eye-roll-worthy heist film from Danny Boyle, unfolds at an art auction house. The gently dashing Simon (James McAvoy) breaks the fourth wall to explain, through his Scottish lilt, that in the event of an attempted robbery during an auction his task is to spirit the most valuable thing in the room — the painting — backstage, zip it into a canvas case and rush it to a deposit slot that feeds into a time-locked vault.
Now segue directly into this very thing happening. A 200-year-old Goya called "Witches in the Air" is fetching 20-something million pounds at auction. Then: gas canisters, panic, chaos. Simon gets as far as the deposit slot, tries to play hero as the thief opens the case and catches the stock of a shotgun to his forehead.
Boyle's touch with motion, light and music — all hallmarks of his 1996 masterwork "Trainspotting" and his direction of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony — are on full display here, and throughout "Trance." But true panache owes a debt also to logic, and quickly Boyle asks his audience to follow him onto brittle ice. As Simon is undergoing emergency brain surgery we learn that the four men who ripped off the painting are carrying only the frame. The canvas is missing, and when Simon comes out of his coma they're expecting him (their inside man, it happens) to produce it. But he genuinely cannot recall its whereabouts. Rather than kill him, the leader of this gang, Franck (Vincent Cassel) prods him into hypnotherapy. London apparently is well-stocked in this department, and out of the listings Simon plucks the likeable name Elizabeth Lamb. Thus it falls to Doctor (?) Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to extract this delicate detail out of Simon's muddled mind.
What follows feels, at best, like "Inception" crossed with "Snatch." Boyle traipses through reality, real memories, ersatz memories and hypno-hallucinations with a surprising deftness, and it all looks great, with lots of eerily glowing walls and neon-lit venues and drunken-angled shots. For as convoluted as this knot becomes, it amazingly holds together as a narrative. This is one of those movies that sends you looking up the editor's name: Jon Harris (who, lo, edited "Snatch" and was Oscar-nominated for "127 Hours").
But just because you can follow it doesn't mean you'll want to. What neither the editor nor the cast can overcome is the general disjoint between the events of the film and all the other stuff you know about life. Turns out that grafting a film about a Big Job Gone Wrong onto a film about Hypnotic Memory Recovery and Maybe a Love Triangle requires you to wade through a bog of dippy explanations as to why and how Simon is guarding his memories from himself, and then watch as McAvoy and Dawson and Cassel all try to treat the material with straight faces.
Not even fun-nasty gangster shenanigans and a couple of late twists can rescue this listing ship. The heist genre has been done in enough ways over enough years that, inevitably, a plot has to reach to come up with even vaguely original take. But once you sit through "Trance" you may soon look forward to repressing large swaths of it in turn.