The dictionary defines memory as “the ability to recall.” For a computer, it’s an exact science when regurgitating programs, data, and facts, but for humans, that process can be ephemeral, flawed, and selective. It’s also an essential component of our existence, as our memories and emotional attachment to our pasts define who we are; it’s been argued that memories, along with the pillars of civilization, war and sex as a pleasure sport, are the defining cornerstones that separate mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Human memories and their mercurial, inexact nature also make for high drama in life and story, most especially in film. What if you couldn’t remember your name, or you blacked out during the critical moment of a murder or robbery? What if, as in Rashomon, different players’ POVs of a series of events result in diametric outcomes, onuses, and liabilities? There’s immediate conflict and intrigue, but to make the payoff and to sell the feasibility of it throughout—and often through the eyes of an unreliable narrator—requires work, artistry, and agility. Take Lenny in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending Memento, or Dr. Edwardes in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. One has short term memory loss, the other amnesia, and what they know in their impaired states of mind is all the audience knows. Their stories build one foggy bread crumb at a time with many false steps and sudden revelations along the way. Each new reveal, true or not, ripples through the audience’s understanding of what has transpired, halting, upending, and enriching it. In Memento, we yearn to know who killed Lenny’s wife, and in Spellbound, the world sits rapt to see if the virtuous Gregory Peck (well, his character, Dr. Edwardes) is actually capable of murder. The gradual reparation of the splintered memories takes the viewer teasingly close to the truth, and then, in the denouement, the final curve masterfully reshapes and cements everything that came before it.
Danny Boyle’s Trance is a continual reshuffle, too, full of spit and vigor even if the artifice isn’t quite as genuine or ingenious as the other two. Like all of Boyle’s films, it’s handsome to behold, driven by a heavy blue composition that radiates with a noir-ish ambiance, but at its core, Trance feels a bit like forced sleight of hand, where the audience can see behind the curtain yet still appreciates the showmanship of a master who may have played on too long. Part of that disappointment may come from Boyle himself. His ability to tap into raw human emotion in the face of insurmountable odds is unparalleled, and with the likes of 127 Hours, Trainspotting, and 28 Days Later to his credit, our expectation is one of near perfection.
That’s not to say that Trance doesn’t bear fruit. It comes out fast and angry as a band of roguish art thieves hit a London auction house midday. Things don’t go quite as planned, as the last person to see the lifted Goya (Witches in the Air) in its frame gets smashed with a rifle butt and can’t remember where he’s stashed it. The job’s ringleader, Franck (the angular Vincent Cassel), an impatient but amiable rogue hopped up on frustration and short on options, sends his forgetful interloper to a hypnotherapist to try to shake out the painting’s locale.
As the sheep caught between the wolves and the shepherd, Simon (James McAvoy) bides his time with the very real prospect he’ll be offed once Franck and his lot have procured the painting. He’s not one of Franck’s regulars, but rather the auction-house insider recruited for access and information. There’s an ingrained wariness between the two men, and Franck, afraid that Simon might be a flight risk and knowing he’ll reveal the painting’s location while under hypnosis, bugs his patsy.
Simon’s aware of the wire too, but when the first session only yields the whereabouts of his mislaid car keys, and he’s sent back for a second session, the hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) catches a glimpse of the wire. Instead of going to the police, Dawson’s Elizabeth calls out Franck (through the wire) and lets him know that she’s onto his game but willing to help for a cut of the action. What ensues is a series of hypnotherapy sessions that begin to piece together the events before and during the theft.
Getting that nugget from inside Simon’s cranium proves to be a daunting undertaking, and the sessions begin to reveal more than just what happened during the robbery—like the fact that Simon and Elizabeth have a past (one he can’t remember and one she’s coy about). As part of Elizabeth’s master game plan to make Simon relax so he can remember, she insists that Franck and his flunkies go under as well. The puppetry here, which is always held confidently from the very top by Boyle, changes control among the three leads. One always has the upper hand, and there’s an uneasy sexual tension between them that feels strangely akin to the cloistered edginess that permeated Boyle’s gritty debut, Shallow Grave.
The two writers, Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, are clearly masters of the Rubik’s cube as they twist and rearrange and go in every direction possible without hitting a wall. Most everything that is presumed at the beginning is shot to hell and flipped on its head by the end. There’s even a thread that involves the neatly shaved southern region of a woman’s body presented with a glabrous pucker.
One of Boyle’s biggest assets here and in his recent endeavors has been the opulent lens of the talented cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The cast is pretty slick as well; all three leads are lean individuals with alluring eyes. Cassel and McAvoy have large clear baby blues that register opposite impressions—one’s capable and confident, while the other’s worried and uncertain. Dawson, who’s never quite gotten enough roles worthy of her talents, bears a deep dark soulfulness that evokes just enough mystery and calculation to keep her paramours and the audience off kilter. She’s the continual spark that keeps the film charged, even when the writers’ circuitous machinations begin to sag from exhaustion.
The near-victorious foray into the inward-folding psycho-thriller puts Boyle in the fine company of Martin Scorsese and Nolan himself. Not even three years ago, Scorsese adapted Denis Lehane’s asylum mystery Shutter Island, and Nolan returned to familiar turf with the sensual feast Inception. All three films, possessors of great texture, depth, and pedigree, are well-crafted odysseys of mind-addled turmoil in which the tormented protagonist’s dilemma invites us in and endears us. We care, we register sympathy as they push for discovery and truth, but in the end when all the arcane circumlocution stops and the cards are laid on the table, what the audience was so invested in turns out to be a device of the plot and not the earnest journey it pretended to be for so long. The plug is pulled from the drain. Like the Salvador Dalí–crafted dream sequences in Spellbound, these films invoke an eerie, hypnotic wonderment, consuming you and transporting you, until inevitably, the fingers snap, the eyes open, and the rapturous trance is broken.