It isn't so much that Danny Boyle takes us down one blind avenue after another that ruins Trance; it's that once we get where we're going, it's still not interesting enough to be worth all the trouble.
Boyle's hot streak is well known, but it's worth examining again for good measure. His film career kicked off with Shallow Grave, which led to Trainspotting, which may have spurred some laurel-resting. The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary followed, and are really the only bad films he'd made to this point. He then gave us 28 Days Later, the heartwarming Millions, the sci-fi flick Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours. That's an amazing run, and when you look at it collectively, it becomes even more obvious how underrated a director Boyle is.
Which is why Trance is so upsetting. With all its slickness and narrative shenanigans, it has the feel of a for-hire project at precisely the moment Danny Boyle should be calling his own shots. It's not really his sort of story and it's not apparent what in the world could have attracted him to such a silly concept.
Simon (James McAvoy) works in an auction house. Art theft is common in his line of work, so most houses worth their salt have a contingency plan if a heist occurs during an auction. Incidentally, that seems an impossibly stupid time to steal art, but whatever. Unfortunately for Simon, Franck (Vincent Cassel) keeps his finger on the pulse of information like that, so when his cronies target a priceless Goya, he's right where he needs to be when Simon tries to transport the masterpiece to safety.
Here's the swerve: Franck does not get the painting. He gets the frame. Where's the painting? He tracks down Simon, who can no longer remember. See, Franck scrambled poor Simon's brain with the butt of a shotgun when he showed some resistance while handing over the Goya. So Franck convinces Simon that his life depends on the painting, and on seeing a hypnotherapist to clear his mental cobwebs.
Naturally, Simon chooses the sexiest hypnotherapist in all of London. Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) recognizes her patient, since he's seen as a folk hero in light of the robbery. She senses he's in trouble and wiggles her way into the heist caper.
Boyle tries to fog things up in Trance by mixing reality with scenes that take place under the power of Elizabeth's suggestion. Some of those hypnotic transmissions appear to be happening even when they're not connected to a session of any kind. It's trickery designed to keep you in the dark about where the painting is and how much Simon, Franck and Elizabeth really know. Except these things operate better when the audience knows exactly one thing more than the characters. That's how suspense works—"Look out, he's got a gun!" or "Don't go in the wine cellar!" Well, we know very little and are at Boyle's mercy to find out more. This isn't suspenseful; it's merely long-winded.
Littering this long and winding road are goofy asides like Simon's backstory as a terribly bad gambler and his apparent fixation with women who shave their pubic hair. That gets two full scenes, by the way.
Heists are rarely the point of heist movies. And that's true because a heist has no personality. Inside Man is about as close as you'll come in recent history to finding a robbery picture driven more by the crime than the criminal. So Trance got that much right. And Boyle has teamed again with his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, meaning this film looks exquisite. Sounds great, too. It's actually quite the sensory experience, truth be told.
But bad stories outlive good production nearly every time, and often, they reveal themselves as phony at the end, at exactly the same moment when good stories come together beautifully. When you feel more relief that you finally know how to solve the puzzle than for the character who solved it, that bad story becomes an exercise in futility.