13 April 2013

Review: Simon Says (Trance)

Danny Boyle, fresh off of two straight best picture selections, is returning to the nitty-gritty genre roots he made his name on with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Boyle is leaving the Oscar pedigree behind him this time and reveling in the extreme behavior, seedy characters, violence and everything else you could imagine in a crime thriller. What is intriguing about Trance is that this particular tale focuses on the art world rather than junkies or zombies.

Simon (James McAvoy) is an unassuming auctioneer who finds himself mixed up with the Frank (Vincent Cassel) and his sordid associates. Frank has devised a seemingly fool-proof plan to steal a Goya's "Witches in the Air". For the heist to succeed, Simon just needs to keep in mind four words "don't be a hero."

Of course, the plan doesn't hold up.

McAvoy, like fellow Scot Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, decides to cut out the middle man and enrich himself. A blow to the head stops that charade dead in its tracks once Simon awakens in a hospital and he can't remember where the painting is. Torturing him isn't coaxing out any answers and time is of the essence, so Frank hires Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to assist in finding the Goya painting in Simon's subconscious.

Like looking through a kaleidoscope, clues are constantly tumbling and rearranging depending on the scene. Not to be outdone, the three leads shift between the spectrum of morality just as quickly. They evolve constantly as the search for the painting leads into some very dark recesses, flipping certain noir cliches on their head in the process.

Noir often lends itself to trappings that ultimately weaken the film containing them, but screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearne manage to avoid those pratfalls in writing such strong characters such as Simon, Frank and Elizabeth. As stylish as Boyle's composing is, McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel are the real draw of Trance.

Danny Boyle and frequent collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle are no strangers to stylized cinematography, but Boyle and Mantle have outdone themselves. Filming portions of the film through glass, and playing with angles, Mantle puts the audience in a constant state of bewilderment. Deciphering which events are real and others only suggested keeps a constant tension running throughout Trance.

Cinema blends illusion better than most mediums, limiting the scope of narrative to one character's point of view and keeping the audience guessing all the while. Yet, for all the guessing, few films have kept me in the dark as long and as well as Trance did. Danny Boyle has crafted a fine mind-bender.

***1/2 out of ****