Is it possible for a director to put too much skill on display? I wondered about that while watching Danny Boyle's new thriller Trance, an over-produced hunk of intrigue that revolves around an art theft.
Boyle seems to be trying for a dizzying head trip of a movie, but in Trance, technique doesn't always translate into mind buzz; instead, technique seems to breed more technique.
Here's the story: A worker at a London auction house (James McAvoy) helps orchestrate an art heist in which a valuable painting by Goya will be stolen. The theft is successful, apart from one detail: During the theft, McAvoy's Simon is conked on the head. He loses his memory, and can't recall where he stashed the stolen painting.
The chief thief (Vincent Cassel's Franck) tries torture as a memory aid, pulling out several of Simon's fingernails. When that doesn't work, Franck switches gears, hiring a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to help unlock McAvoy's lost memories.
Nothing more than a classy MacGuffin, the painting quickly recedes in importance as Boyle plays with issues of betrayal, loyalty, desire and obsession. The result: An overly complex story that remains watchable without totally engaging on either an emotional or intellectual level.
Because Trance blurs the line between what's apparent and what's real, it's constantly playing games with us. We invest attention in scenes that we take as real only to discover that we're watching one of Simon's hypnosis-induced hallucinations.
McAvoy trades on his lively, nice guy image. Rosario, who at one point appears fully naked -- as in full-frontal nudity -- projects a sense of calm control, and Cassel manages a fair amount of mobster menace.
Known to audiences for movies such as 127 Hours, 28 Days Later and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle may have been betting that the journey rather than the destination would carry the day -- that along with McAvoy's avidity, Dawson's sexiness and Cassel's brutish force.
It's not an entirely good bet. Once you break through the visual trickery, flashbacks and hypnotic falderal, Trance isn't especially difficult to out-guess.
Those familiar with Boyle's work won't be surprised to learn that Trance has its share of vividly realized scenes and moments. Boyle keeps our eyes and his camera busy, but that's not ultimately enough.