After nearly two decades of making films, Danny Boyle’s cinematic legacy is as impressive as it is elusive. On paper, his resume looks superb: a definitive counter-culture narrative, the zombie picture that reinvented the genre, an underrated urban fable, one of the best space odysseys since 2001, a crowd-pleasing Oscar winner about poverty in the developing world, and a survivalist drama for the Millennial era. Despite the well-deserved praise and near classic status some of his films have earned, the search for a unifying field over this diverse slate proves murky. This isn’t meant to punish Boyle for his genre-jumping eclecticism, but more to pose a question: How is it that a Danny Boyle films still feels like a Danny Boyle film? His latest, Trance, undoubtedly feels like a Danny Boyle film, while (like the rest of his movies) having little in common with most of his work.
In a way, Trance does circle back to the beginning of Boyle’s career, in the Hitchcockian roots of his first feature, Shallow Grave. From a genre standpoint, this label works: Trance weaves a surreal psychological thriller into a high-stakes caper set against the ubiquity of digital technology. Using hypnotherapy as its central device, Trance alludes to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, though more for the age of Molly than Dali. Essentially, the narrative boils down to a gambling-addicted art auctioneer (James McAvoy) forgetting where he stashed the loot from a painting heist; understandably irked, his crew sends him to a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to unearth the location. As is the case with most contemporary thrillers, not much is really what it seems and some (kind of) spoiler-worthy twists ensue.
Unlike, say, Sunshine or 28 Days Later, Trance doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but instead fits it with some nice rims. Boyle’s fast-paced style and virtuoso ability to synch up music and sound with image creates a mood of ordered chaos that works well with the subject matter. The “is this really happening” convention of contemporary mind thrillers even comes across as less strained than usual, as the use of hypnotherapy places most of the scenes firmly within Simon’s head, tainted by his subjectivity and intentional unreliability. Boyle also utilizes the increased prevalence of recorded images in our lives as a way in and out of Simon’s mind sequences — the search for what Simon did with the painting becomes the search for a lost piece of footage. The mind as a sort of recording device is an interesting idea in a time when it’s relatively easy to manipulate and enhance filmed materials, but for the film, this is only a side trip en route to its real thematic U-turn (of course, like nearly everything else here, this notion creeps back in towards the end).
What makes the film intriguing apart from Boyle’s visual style is the surprising feminist message that emerges by the end . Ultimately, Trance turns towards the idea of men trying to control women in various ways, from the (male) artist’s manipulation of female models in art history to the threat of physical violence. Indeed, Simon’s opening narration and de facto role as our guide through the film plants the idea that we are in a man’s world. Moreover, Boyle’s own use of Rosario Dawson’s nude form also adds to this notion. By the end of the film, Boyle tries his best to subvert this idea of masculine hierarchical norms, but it’s not entirely clear whether this is one small step for a woman or one giant leap for woman kind.