One... Two... Three... You're under. Danny Boyle's hypnotic psychothriller casts a stylish spell over the mystery of a stolen painting.
Tap, tap, tap, tap. With his face about two inches from the screen, James McAvoy raps his knuckles hard against the glass, as if he's banging on the other side of the fourth wall. That's the cinema of Danny Boyle right there: striking images.
Sure enough, Boyle's new psychothriller Trance is full of them: stylish, concussive, reverberating, impossible to ignore. Shot for sensory vibe, Boyle's first film since his fabulous Olympic curtain-raiser regularly makes your head tingle, even if it never breaks through to a deeper level of consciousness. It's a typically energised joyride that takes us, just like McAvoy's leading character, for a spin.
Seemingly told in flashback by a soon-to-be-amnesiac narrator, Trance tantalisingly makes us question whose story this actually is right from the very start. Young art auctioneer Simon (McAvoy) stares knowingly at us, eyes locked on the camera. Simon says, anyone can steal a painting. Simon says, it's his job to stop that happening. Already the distractions and seductions have begun.
Within minutes, the story is kicked into motion as slick thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his gang spring a meticulously direct, bluntly effective plan to raid an auction and snatch Francisco Goya's £27m masterpiece Witches On The Air ("The first great painter of the human mind," Simon says). The chaos goes like clockwork. Except that when Franck inspects his prize... the frame is empty.
Empty frames, of course, are one thing Boyle doesn't do. Characters are trapped by them, split by them and mirrored by them as virtuoso cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's gorgeous sliding angles tilt every shot into visual motif. When the secret to the painting's location is lost inside Simon's mind (thanks to a concussive dose of amnesia delivered mid-robbery by the wallop of Franck's shotgun), the gang enlist hynpotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to extract it. Questions begin to stack. Where is the painting? Does Simon really know? Why is Elizabeth so intrigued? Will Franck kill them when he finds it?
As Elizabeth begins a series of hypnotic journeys into the unmapped gaps in Simon's memory, frightening and confusing things begin to emerge. To say more would break Trance's spell, but you get the feeling that after Slumdog Millionaire's gonzo shoot, Frankenstein's theatrical staging and the Olympic megatron, Boyle wanted to go back to basics.
Almost 20 years ago, he and screenwriter John Hodge began with three untrustworthy characters, a McGuffin and some dark secrets – and they duly give us a wink to their debut crime thriller Shallow Grave during one hypnotic trauma. Indeed, Boyle may finally have found a true replacement for his early muse Ewan McGregor: McAvoy is an actor charismatic enough to hold still at the centre while Boyle's film swirls around him.
Immensely charming and likeable, while allowing disturbing hints of sadism to emerge from his character, he's a perfect fulcrum for the twists, while Dawson and Cassel provide class and texture. The characters meet in a club called Analog London – written in huge, vivid neon letters – but Trance never moves with any reliable chronology. To keep us intrigued, always moving and always off-balance, screenwriter John Hodge's story relies heavily on Mantle's exuberant visuals and the cast's charisma.
This is an evocative, cinematic vision of London, in which the city is a psychological state – cars travel along night roads like electric pulses through the brain. We've seen much of this before from Boyle: hot colours, hardcore violence, kinetic energy, pounding soundtrack. What's missing here is the grinning wit and emotional tug of the director's boldest triumphs.
During one of his hypnosis reveries, Simon receives a beautiful package and carefully unwraps layer after layer only to discover nothing but blood and stuffing at its core. Searching for something deeper in Trance proves similarly elusive. It may be stylistically compulsive, but it never genuinely burrows into our minds with Lynchian psycho-surrealism or Nolan-esque cerebralism.
As the story veers and shifts, Trance loses some of its drive and direction by the time it reaches the final third. But fortunately, Boyle slams it home with a blazing climax that's full of everything he does best: invention, tension, intensity and, of course, scorching images. Trust Boyle to find a way to combine the primal fears of burning and drowning in one gripping set-piece. And like that – tap, tap, tap, tap – you're back in the room.
Danny Boyle's first film since the Olympic opening ceremony.
Pulsing with loud style, it's a vibrant, vibey joyride.
Probably all in the mind?