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Danny Boyle's mind game movie

Apr. 15, 2013
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Director Danny Boyle, after winning accolades for 127 Hours and Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, turns to mind games with his latest film. Trance opens masterfully as an ironic art heist caper with a twist of amnesia. It turns serious soon enough, becoming a head-scratcher whose many twists and turns promise intrigue but end in a blind alley where Vanilla Sky rear-ends Inception.

About that beginning: In a nod toward Sunset Boulevard, Trance opens with a cheeky narration of its hapless protagonist Simon (James McAvoy), an art dealer at a posh London auction house who arranges the theft of Goya's Witches in the Air. Edited with the economy and precision of a good music video (and set to a pulse-pounding techno rock beat), the robbery is exciting to watch and introduces the first puzzle: Why does Simon bungle the job? With the robbery in progress, he suddenly strikes out at his partner, the hardened criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel), who responds by clubbing him with a rifle butt. Simon awakens with no memory of what happened to the Goya, which mysteriously disappeared before it reached the criminals' lair. Franck is convinced that Simon somehow kept it for himself.

Boyle shifts easily between visual textures (from full color digital to grainy surveillance video) and emotional moods. Bleeding after being tortured, Simon is slumped in the corner of Franck's lair as the gang members eat Chinese takeout with chopsticks. Finally convincing them that he can't recall where the Goya went, Simon is sent by the gang to a beautiful hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who promises to unlock the chamber where his memory is kept. But she decides she wants a piece of the Goya, becoming an equal partner in crime.

So far, so good—and then come the head games, the “who-is-putting-who-on?” half of the film. Visually, Boyle captures the labyrinth of the mind in scenes of mirrored reflections through off-kilter cameras, and in one moment conjures a grotesque image worthy of Goya. Witches in the Air hovers above the action, a mysterious allegory for the darkness of the human imagination that Boyle's story wants to penetrate. Nevertheless, we are left with the feeling that the exercise wasn't time well spent.


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