Danny Boyle's “Trance” begins its life as an art-heist film and then takes several hallucinogenic turns in which the lines between its characters' true lives and their layers of hypnotically suggested subconscious thoughts get blurred into a mind-bending fever dream. This is “Inception” with a mean streak.
James McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer working an inside job to steal a Goya painting, but just on the edge of a successful heist, Simon sustains a head injury that results in amnesia. So Simon has no idea where the Goya is, and his forceful partners in the scheme, led by hot-tempered Franck (Vincent Cassel), hit upon an ethically nasty idea: hire hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to fish out the hidden contents of Simon's mind.
From that point, it soon becomes clear that the location of the Goya is not the only thing Simon has forgotten, and Dr. Lamb's mental spelunking goes far beyond Franck's immediate concerns. “Trance” is built on multiple layers of reality, dreamscape, therapeutically calibrated deception and misdirection.
It is a film worth exploring multiple times, since it could take several views to pick up on how each layer of hypnosis fits into the one below it like a nasty nesting doll.
After two films that explored the outer reaches of human suffering in a quest for ultimate life affirmation, “127 Hours” and the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle has returned to the lysergic dark comedy of his earlier films — there are no lessons to be learned or triumphs of the human spirit. It is also, like most of Boyle's films, full of equal doses of stylized beauty and ugliness, some of it frightfully memorable.
Of all the players, Dawson shines brightest as a figure of gentle malevolence: she almost floats above all the foibles and human errors in “Trance,” pulling strings to alter perception and suit her ultimate interests. Her influence builds throughout “Trance,” and she holds the viewer's attention as ably as she holds Simon's consciousness. Ultimately, “Trance” holds less substantial value than Boyle's best films, mainly because he's more interested in immediately messing with minds — on screen and in the audience — than he is in making a lasting, tangible impact.
— George Lang