Trance, directed by Danny Boyle and starring James McAvoy, tantalizes as much as it tells. As an employee at a London auction-house, a fetcher of millions for art masterpieces, McAvoy’s character undergoes a shattering psychosis when the heist of a Goya painting goes awry. Haunted and spellbound as the painting itself, the movie relentlessly shifts the boundaries of time and truth, with memory and the mind’s power to reshape memory on opposite sides of the same membrane.

Like James Stewart in Vertigo—one of the greatest acting performances ever of a psyche in duress—Trance depends upon McAvoy being able to pull you into his tragedy. Underappreciated despite his fame, McAvoy acts with such subtle, variegated emotion that one can take him for granted.. He carries Trance with a combination of vulnerability, violence, and compulsion in his character’s attempt to solve the puzzle of his memory loss. There are moments when he could burst from frustration, others when he is helplessly sedate.

McAvoy has matured since his breakthrough in The Last King of Scotland, gaining a command that was also on display in his performance in The Last Station. Innocence-meets-experience is certainly McAvoy’s forte; his aqua-mist eyes are capable of a tremulous intensity.

Aside from some outright silly gore, the direction of Trance has a real panache to it, even if it is unstable. The soundtrack and lighting are particularly poignant, contrasting the grey-lit, traditional architecture of London facades with the modern glare of streamlined apartments, messaging gadgets, and a neon nightclub.

Visually, it’s an ambitious movie, cutting and connecting images from past, present and future without explanation—and trusting the images to tell the story, even while dislocating the viewer’s senses. Yet stock movie-mechanisms (heist, amnesia, hypnosis) push the narrative along in the tradition of a Hitchcock thriller.

The script may have too many narrative twists, but it nonetheless retains a high suspense; I can’t say if a second viewing will allow it to make conclusive sense. The movie as a whole is a kind of foreboding hallucination, yet an intensely dramatic three-actor play emerges between McAvoy’s broken self, Vincent Casell’s criminal (interestingly toned down from the tyrannical ballet teacher of Black Swan), and Rosario Dawson’s therapist (tepid and mechanical when she’s intended as seductive), with each of them bound in their own way by the most primal of human motives.

Photo credit: Susie Allnutt – © 2013 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

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