TRANCE is a thing of grotesquely fascinating beauty, an evolved noir designed to provoke and to disturb in equal measure as it toys with the audience's notions of absolute certainty. It begins with the winsome James McAvoy addressing the audience directly, his sadly earnest face a perfect picture of open honesty as he sets up the plot with him at the center. Like everything else that will follow, it’s not quite what it seems. Rather, he is sharing, can only share, his own subjective reality, though he’s not yet aware that this is the case.
He’s Simon, a trusted auctioneer at a respected and very high-end establishment that deals exclusively in the most valuable or art work. None, Simon reminds us, is worth more than a human life, even though he himself tried to stop the heist of Goya’s “Witches in the Air” and got a nasty knock on the head as a result. And therein lies the problem. Hailed as a hero for his efforts, Simon has lost part of his memory as a result. That loss leads to a dangerous confrontation with the criminal (Vincent Cassel) who wanted the Goya, and the scathingly clever turn the film takes wherein assumptions are subverted, good and evil become relative terms, and trust: doctor-patient, boyfriend-girlfriend, and director-audience, are manipulated with a scathingly clever visual vocabulary.
To recover his memory Simon puts himself in the professional hands of Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a coolly beautiful hypnotherapist whose voice is more dangerous than any mundane weapon, and whose name may or may not be intended as a play on the concept of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She gets into his head, but who is using whom soon becomes the real mystery in this subliminal thriller. Random comments are slips of the tongue with Freudian overtones. Repressed memories become indistinguishable from the fanciful coping mechanisms that Simon uses to deal with the death-defying game he doesn’t realize that he is playing.
Boyle gives the action its own dreamlike logic. Colors are just a little off. Camera angles not quite right. But that’s only the beginning. Individual scenes play out in an order that has more to do with the subconscious than with chronology, and they are suffused with the icons of dreamland and of nightmares. Reflections of objects become as important as the objects themselves, often taking center stage, a reflection themselves of Simon’s hypnotherapy sessions wherein the reality of his suggestible mind blends fact and fiction with a potent juxtaposition. Despite violent emotions, and emotional violence, there is a delicious, maddening ambiguity to the proceedings that deepens the mystery of what is really going on while at the same time giving clues that will only make sense in retrospect.
Audacious and mischievous, TRANCE is viscerally cerebral as it plunges the audience into the same fugue state in which Simon finds himself, making everyone involved question the nature of free will. Leave aside theological implications, this is not a story in which a deity plays any sort of role, but rather the implacable force exerted by the unconscious mind, and the psychological underpinnings that don’t quit bubble up into consciousness, but relentlessly drive action that only seems to be the product of free will. The final scene neatly sums it all up, without actually resolving into anything remotely resembling objectivity, yet with the piquancy of a punch line, and the crash of worlds crumbling into dust.