British director Danny Boyle is never short on inspiration for his projects, be it a young Mumbai game-show contestant (Slumdog Millionaire), a weekend warrior who must sever his own arm to survive (127 Hours) — or, with his latest, Trance, a missing Goya painting that ensnares three morally ambiguous connivers in an ever-escalating game of manipulation.
The movie wastes no time in the set-up: Art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) aims to help a gang warlord, Franck (Vincent Cassel), walk away with a multimillion-dollar canvas, but foils the plan and sustains a head injury in the process. Franck is none too pleased, but rather than kill Simon, he hires a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), to help his amnesiac co-conspirator remember the location of the Goya. In the process, less is revealed about the painting’s whereabouts than the twisted psychology of the three principal characters — all impressively inhabited by their respective actors, and each vulnerable to deception, jealousy and their hunger for control. And as the story grows more frenzied and contorted, the viewer is left wondering if the scene they’re watching is actually happening, or if Elizabeth is having her way with Simon’s volatile subconscious. An iPad serves as both a gateway to his memory and one of the film’s plot devices. (Another is Dawson’s symbolically groomed vagina.)
Boyle is on fire here. While he’s dialed back the acid-test special effects, he retains his hypnotic, savage, fever-dream visual style, hearkening back to his first noteworthy project, 1994’s noir-ish Shallow Grave. With that film’s writer, John Hodge, and co-writer Joe Ahearne, Boyle unfurls a narrative that initially underwhelms and exasperates — its unrelenting twists are an arrhythmic contrast to Underworld instrumentalist Rick Smith’s propulsive score — but ultimately ties together its loose ends, especially during a climactic flurry of revelations that would make even fellow celluloid mind-bender Christopher Nolan’s head spin. Not even the occasional nonlinear vignette can derail the morality tale’s momentum, which helps keep the audience engaged even as it questions its own perception.