Trance is a labyrinth without a string leading out. While anyone sitting down to watch might expect a director of Danny Boyle’s caliber (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) to provide that string, the third act of this film was well underway before I realized there could be no satisfying escape. Somewhere in his house, I imagine, perhaps on his refrigerator, Danny Boyle has written out a list of film genres and whenever he wraps shooting, he crosses another item off the list. Thriller. Drug movie. Zombie movie. Sci-fi. Christmas movie. When he finished Trance, I wager he crossed off the words “Christopher Nolan.”
When Trance begins, it appears to be about a crew of criminals stealing a costly painting in the middle of an auction. Simon (James McAvoy), the art auctioneer, is injured when the painting is stolen, but when the thieves open the bag containing the painting, it is empty. Simon is in a coma, and when he awakes, the criminals accuse him of having intrigued with them to steal the painting, but then switching some bags around, and keeping it for himself. He claims to have forgotten what he did with the painting, and so he goes to a hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to help him recall the memories he has lost. From this point, what happens is anybody’s guess, and I say that as someone who saw the movie sober, and paid attention as best I could.
The narrative becomes wildly unsteady once the possibility of hypnotism ropes into the plot. Of course, hypnotists can work backwards and forwards, and quickly we begin wondering whether Boyle is representing actions of the plot with images that are only occurring in Simon’s imagination, falsely put there by his hypnotist. Is he even an art auctioneer? Nothing which passes in the second and third acts inspires confidence. The narrative is neither reliable, nor reliably unreliable, or unreliably reliable, but unreliably unreliable; in fact, were the film not so dirty, I might be made to believe it was commissioned by the ghost of Greg Bahnsen as an argument that absolute truth exists, and is certainly knowable, because the world would just be too frustrating if it were otherwise.
Christopher Nolan plays around with the relationship between perception and reality, the uncertainty of memory, the shifting nature of hermeneutical prejudices, and while his films might inspire multiple interpretations, each of those interpretations might be lucidly explained and staked in particular scenes and images. Nolan makes labyrinths, but he gives strings.
Boyle and his screenwriters do not seem to understand the treachery of images, a remark I make not in defense of Magritte’s sad iconoclasm, but to try to convey the confusion of the film. While Nolan presents images fraught with meaning arguable in several directions (the dead birds of The Prestige, for instance, or Cobb’s top), there is little doubt that the image on the screen is meant to be grappled with. Occasionally, the narrative eye might light on something the creator means to nullify. The dues ex machina of, say, Euripides’ Ion does not actually happen, I say, nor is the audience to believe what they see. While the god swoops in at the last second, saves the day, and imparts comfort to the troubled hero, the play is, up to that moment, bent on inspiring ennui with Apollo’s cult. Euripides is no more confident in the gods than was Socrates. Having painted himself into an existential corner (wondering about his parents, prophecy, typical pagan dread), Ion seems poised to take his own life, but then Athena appears, offers Ion wealth and power, and the boy forgets all his questions. The audience is supposed to go unsatisfied, to shrug, to roll their eyes. Euripides commends the inescapable existential corner as the true situation of man. I think there are arguments to be made in favor of Claudius’ confession in Hamlet never happening, as well as most of the happy and moral endings of Hitchcock films (the last five minutes of Rope are patently false and exist only to satisfy the Hays Code; Hitch commends the boys for their murder).
And yet, the presentation of false images and false dialog must be used sparingly, if ever, in order to make the true images pop. Trance seems composed of nothing more than Claudius’ confession. By the time the thing is over, nothing was real, and we are left with no particular thing with which to struggle and ponder. “This is not a pipe,” claimed Magritte beneath a picture of a pipe, but Boyle seems disinclined to even paint the pipe.