Plot-twisting puzzlers are a bubble market in the movies these days, with an arms race of "Inception"-like reality reversals that flip like a coin until dizzy audiences lose all interest in how it lands.
That's certainly the case with Danny Boyle's "Trance," a mind-bending neo-noir with continually shifting layers but little beyond its flashy plot machinations. The movies used to be content to be the stuff of dreams. Now, they aim for hypnosis, limbo and headache-inducing dreams within dreams. Advil might soon replace popcorn.
With Boyle's characteristic briskness, "Trance" starts promisingly enough. James McAvoy is Simon, a London auctioneer who describes the emergency protocol of the high-end auction house "in the event of an event." As he does so, such an event is underway: A well-planned gang led by Frank (the excellent Vincent Cassel) brazenly attempts to steal Francisco Goya's "Witches in the Air."
Simon attempts to foil the heist, but we soon realize he's in on the plot, too. But something has gone awry. A blow to the head has sapped Simon of his memory, leading the crew to enlist a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to elicit the location of the missing painting from Simon's banged-up brain.
This is, naturally, when the script by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge (a frequent collaborator with Boyle), begins to play with Simon's hypnosis. The movie drifts in and out of consciousness, guided by Dawson's silky voice. Is Simon our protagonist or villain? Is Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson) pulling out Simon's memories or implanting them? Pubic hair, you will be happy to learn, figures prominently in the answers to these questions.
Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, saturate the film with reflected images and a sleek, colorful palate. "Trance" is never more than a minute away from a striking image, though the glassy, frenetic compositions only heighten the movie's lack of depth.
It's Dawson's fleshy, commanding presence that helps melt the right angles of "Trance." Her character gradually moves to the forefront of the film, such that you might mutter "James McA who?" by the time she, like a goddess, disrobes. But before a full picture of Elizabeth arrives, the movie's succession of implausible trapdoors has rendered any big reveal about as satisfactory as a punch line to a 20-minute-long knock-knock joke.
Boyle is a talented, zippy craftsman with a protean body of work ("Trainspotting," ''Slumdog Millionaire," ''127 Hours") that, pleasingly, seems to cringe at the whiff of pretension to anything running longer than two hours. The notable exception to that, of course, was the opening ceremony to the London Olympics that Boyle directed.
That pageant culminated in an ode to modernity, a theme for Boyle, particularly in his last three films. "Trance," ''127 Hours" and "Slumdog Millionaire" are all populated by screens within screens, from cellphones to tablets to video cameras.
"Trance" ends, somewhat laboriously, with the choice of a click, and the option to remember or forget. But the superficial tricks of "Trance" sadly already made that decision.
"Trance," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.