Three morally slippery protagonists form a shaky alliance in an effort to get their hands on a valuable painting in director Danny Boyle’s “Trance,” a sensorially dazzling but dramatically disappointing brio-noir thriller from the usually efficient British director.
Too many twists obscure the human element in this movie in which Boyle — who made the 1990s decorum-busting black comedies “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting” and 2008’s crowd-pleasing “Slumdog Millionaire” — explores heist-drama and “Inception”-style brain-twister terrain.
Revisiting the greed theme of “Shallow Grave” and working from a screenplay by John Hodge (his “Shallow Grave” collaborator) and Joe Ahearne (who penned the 2001 TV version of “Trance”), Boyle leads off the action with a robbery of a Goya painting in London.
Simon (James McAvoy), a young auctioneer who looks a wee bit too upright, gets hit on the head as he prevents the chief thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) from escaping with the painting.
Amnesia results, and when torture can’t make Simon remember where he put the painting during the chaos, Franck hires a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to penetrate Simon’s brain.
As the hypnosis sessions progress, hidden motivations and unsavory secrets emerge for both therapist and patient, as well as messy dynamics between the trio as they collaborate and compete in their desire to obtain the painting.
Romantic obsession thickens the scenario.
The film begins scintillatingly, with first-rate action, striking cinematography and a pulsating score. And the mindscape scenes interestingly explore how easily emotional need and the power of suggestion can warp one’s perception of reality.
But rather than develop such material into compelling psychodrama, the movie becomes an assault, with plot twists and surface sensation: everything from bloodied fingers to a shot-off head to a field of sunflowers to a kinky art-history lesson about the female nude.
The characters themselves don’t register substantially.
Still, the cast impresses. McAvoy may seem too soft-centered to play an obsessive sort with violence on the brain, but the miscasting proves effective when the movie’s people-aren’t-what-they-seem ingredient comes into play.
Dawson’s Elizabeth supplies requisite femme fatale qualities while conveying the intelligence of a therapist. She even makes the pop-psych phraseology almost convincing.
Best of all, Cassel’s menacing Franck displays unexpected sympathetic shades that transcend screenplay gimmickry.
The film sharpens toward the end, but that doesn’t compensate for the middle portion’s shortcomings. Unlike Boyle’s “127 Hours,” which made the story of a man immobilized by a boulder entertaining, “Trance” is hardly entrancing.