By Bob Clark
The films of Danny Boyle always seem to represent an almost perfect condition for me as a filmgoer, each of them offering something of a genuine pleasant surprise, without exception. I was never terribly aware of little modern gems like Sunshine or 28 Days Later before they came into theaters, even though they both hit squarely in my favorite mode of science-fiction, but that only meant that I never had to build up any of the hopes and excitement whose tendency to be met with histrionic disappointment seems to be a hallmark of this current generation of cinephiles. Perhaps one of the reasons that Boyle’s films can avoid this particular hype-boobytrap is because of his position as a consumate genre chameleon, turning on a dime from horrors and thrillers to rom-coms and true-life stories, always looking for fresh narrative material to mine his particular cockeyed directorial vision. And as oddball and strained as his aesthetics can sometimes feel (The Beach feels particularly calibrated to alienate any segment of the audience at any given moment, though perhaps that’s by design, inheriting Leonardo DiCaprio fresh off his heartthrob death on Titanic), he’s usually been able to unite the disparate parts of his chosen scripts and unusual visual sensations to create movies that beg for skepticism just as hard as they try to then win it over.
The unlikely awards-sensation of Slumdog Millionaire may represent his greatest, yet at the same time most dubious success yet– a movie that thrives on old-school movie charm and modernist realism and panache, yet in a way that over time only goes to underline the deeply troubling third-world exploitation both dwelled upon by the film’s story and sadly represented in the behind-the-scenes drama of its making (were those kids ever paid?). Even 127 Hours was able to win me over with its visual ingenuity and dramatic focus, even in spite of featuring a central performance from one of my least favorite actors of this generation (in fact, no– I think I can safely say James Franco is definitively the bottom of the barrel for me). If nothing he’s done has managed to match the sensational one-two punch of material, cast and visual dynamism that Trainspotting representing, the very least one can say of Boyle is that he’s never stopped trying as hard as any one director can (or several of them at once, for that matter) to pour all of his creative resources and faculties into each project. Putting his all into every project can sometimes lead to uneven results– even personal favorites like Sunshine and 28 Days Later are full of script problems that Boyle is never able to quite fix on the set, and indeed sometimes seem exacerbated by his unrestrained visual style– but there’s something psychologically appealing about a filmmaker running free of any kind of censoring quality-control, and it’s easy to see how the hypnosis-thriller story of Trance could appeal to that “all in” sensibility.
One could summarize the plot, but you would only get so far before finding one’s description tied into knots while trying to navigate gracefully around the many and myriad plot twists that are bound to come with any halfway clever thriller that has to do with the innermost workings of the mind. Indeed, it may be one of the most essential pieces– one of the many frustrations with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, as time goes on, is just how straightforward it turned out to be. Suffice to say, something’s been stolen (a painting) and someone got hit on the head (James McAvoy, relishing his natural Scottish accent) and can’t remember where it’s stashed, thus spurring that someone’s partners in crime (led by Vincent Cassel, oddly at his most laid-back and even friendly as an underworld overlord) to contract the services of a professional therapist (Rosario Dawson, looking and more importantly sounding her best) whose mastery of the art of hypnotism seems to reach into the realm of comic-book superpowers, with various layers of dreamscapes, hallucinations and nightmare scenarios bleeding into and nesting inside one another at the same rate the feints, double-crosses and last-minute backstories start piling up. And that’s only as far as you can get into it without going into specifics– even merely adding a character’s name to the mix would both reveal too much and add so many multiplying complications to the mix, and the prospect of taking the movie seriously would require an Aspirin on top of the large doses of sodium its very premise already begs.
As a concept the movie seems both ahead of the curve, even as it’s playing a slight game of catch-up with the trade-winds of popular culture that have been trending on the notions of dream worlds and virtual realities at least since 1999. As it stands, the film first began as a script written by Joe Ahearne in 1994, and it’s hard to imagine the Danny Boyle of almost twenty years ago being able to pull off anything as audacious as he’s put on the screen here– both creatively and technically speaking, we’re miles ahead of anything that the director could’ve afforded to put on the screen after the opening gambit of Shallow Grave, though it’s tempting to imagine a rawer, more down-to-earth and thoroughly hungrier talent rushing in on the material rather than the seasoned pro that Boyle has evolved into. Ahearne eventually turned it into a TV movie in 2001, just as its take on psychogenice fugues was starting to go mainstream, and now in revisiting the material another twelve years later it almost seems quaint and old fashioned to suspect that we’ll be dipping into the inner labyrinth of another unconscious archetypal figure hovering somewhere between his animus and anima. Out of this world is just par for the course.
It goes to show just how far the goal-posts of cinematic convention have been moved to appreciate just how grounded an otherwise high-concept can sound to the trained movie-going ear– lucid dreams and waking nightmares are no longer far outside the boundaries of movie reality, all the way from the art-house of Mulholland Drive to the multiplex of Avatar. That kind of familiarity with an otherwise psychologically alienating premise can help make the various innacuracies and loosely applied sciences of Trance go down easier. What makes the film somewhat refreshing, among other things, is the way that the classical, even primordial practice of the dream narrative has been focused and located into a central bedding concept, but not one that’s completely outside the realm of practical reality. Through the plot-device of hypnotism, we have a chance to explore various dream-states and for Boyle to play with all manner of cinematic surrealism, but without surrendering the emotional immediacy of the plot to the kinds of science-fiction contrivances that might otherwise get in the way of the emotional stakes of the story. At the same time, there’s a sliver of plausibility that’s sacrificed, and one that demonstrates just how much we’re willing to take on faith when it comes to science-fiction and fantasy storytelling crutches.
We might know that it’s more or less impossible for the dream-linking machines of Inception or Paprika to work the way they’re supposed to on-screen, but you can give it the benefit of the doubt of a sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, as Clarke said. The question then becomes whether it’s worth it for the story to veer away from the familiar narrative and aesthetic modes of sci-fi in order to give Boyle and his performers more room to play with, and for the most part the answer is yes. Granted, there are still moments as with Sunshine and 28 Days Later where the director seems to be getting antsy with the genre he’s chosen, to the point where he more or less changes horses midstream and allows the movie to become something else entirely. That could be frustrating when you were watching a smart, white-knuckle hard starship drama get turned into yet another slasher movie in space, or when one type of post-apocalyptic zombie movie seemed to fast-forward through time into something you might’ve expected from a sequel, but here it seems to naturally fit the contours of a narrative driven by an individual’s subconscious and sublimated wants and desires. Just as Boyle allows the canvas of his cinematic framings explode in sensational tableaus and arrays of widescreen cubism, flying freely from one mode of art expression to another, McAvoy, Dawson and Cassell all play characters who seem to be drifting in and out of different personal roles and history as a matter of habits learned from lives of natural conflict and regret, and all of it feeling rather natural and fitting for the subject. At the root of Trance lies an uncomfortable, but at times liberating truth of the human condition that’s central to Danny Boyle’s career thus far as a whole– most of us haven’t decided on a genre to play out lives out in, and the only time we might finally settle is when the story’s at its end.