One of my favorite sci-fi movies -- at least in terms of the underlying premise -- has always been "Total Recall." And that's not because of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and/or what director Paul Verhoeven brought to the mix. Instead, it was the fascinating examination of what constitutes reality and how memories aren't always as accurate as we imagine they are.
Unfortunately, and beyond the basic concept and a few later related scenes, all of that thematic headiness took a back seat to the bloody and gory action. But the true sci-fi elements -- adapted from Philip K. Dick's 1966 short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" -- are deliriously smart, thought-provoking and entertaining.
While not a sci-fi story in the traditional sense, Danny Boyle's "Trance" clearly owes some debt of gratitude to Dick's nearly half-century (!) old tale. And that's because what initially appears to be a dramatic thriller about an art heist gone wrong turns into a film about memory and mind games. In it, James McAvoy plays a fine art auctioneer who initially introduces us to the world of high-end art thefts and the security now in place to make that crime as rare as a famous Picasso work fetching less than $1 million.
Yet, as soon as that framework is put into place, along comes an art thief (Vincent Cassel) and his small gang who proceed to steal Goya's "Witches in the Air" painting. Being the trustworthy auction house employee that he is, Simon tries to stop Franck, but gets knocked on the head and loses consciousness. When he comes to, Franck isn't pleased that Simon somehow managed to hide the painting, thus leaving the criminal with nothing but an empty frame. Some unsavory torture then follows, but Simon simply can't say what he did with the work because he can't remember.
Thus, the criminals hire hypnotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Lamb to see Simon (under a false name and with a faux memory need) so she can unearth their precious info. But she seems to catch on with what's occurring and thus meets with the criminals, demanding a cut of the action as she's the only one who can help them.
To avoid additional spoilers, I won't go into any further details about how things play out from there. Let's just say Chubby Checker has nothing on the amount of twists Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire," "127 Hours") and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge throw into the storyline that starts bending, folding and turning back on itself in ways that would likely make Philip K. Dick proud and Arnie envious.
The performances from the three leads are all solid, with Dawson particularly standing out as the various twists, turns and such play out and her true intentions rise to the top. McAvoy and Cassel are also good as their characters develop into something more than how they initially start. As in most of Boyle's films, the cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle) is visually splendid, the editing (Jon Harris) is tight, and the score (Rick Smith) is mesmerizing as it should be for a film of this title and subject matter.
Considering the content, it's clearly not for all adult viewers and certainly not for kids. But for those looking for an artsy thriller that continuously reveals new layers and plays off the intertwined notion of what's real, what's a memory and what's manipulation, you could do far worse than this intriguing and beautifully shot film. "Trance" rates as a 7 out of 10.