It might be unfair to lay the blame entirely on M. Night Shyamalan, but if plot twists and shocking reversals and surprise reveals have a bad name right now at the movies, the man behind "The Village" and "The Happening" should shoulder at least some of the responsibility.
As if to vindicate and justify the pleasure and power of a good twist, here comes Danny Boyle's "Trance," a thoroughly pleasurable movie of unexpected revelations and witty diversions that easily ranks among the best films of this still-young year. I can't remember the last time I had this much fun having the rug pulled out from under me.
The nature and specifics of when and how the film duped me will not be revealed here; suffice it to say that what starts out as an intricate art-theft caper then turns into an amnesia thriller before heading out into unpredictable territory.
Auction house employee Simon (James McAvoy) narrates the film's pre-credits prologue, walking us through the drill of what's supposed to happen when burglars show up; he takes the canvas off the auctioneer's easel, walks it downstairs, slips it into a case and then puts the case in a drop-box safe where no one can get it. That's the drill, mind you; when Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his men show up to commit a real crime, things don't go exactly as planned.
Without giving too much away, Simon knows where the valuable Goya painting ("Flying Witches") Franck wants is hidden, but he can't remember because Franck hit him in the head during the robbery. After removing a few of Simon's fingernails, Franck believes that Simon genuinely has amnesia, so off they go to hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to unlock the secrets hidden in Simon's mind. And then "Trance" is really off to the races, with double-crosses, betrayals, misdirects, unexpected revelations and general pulse-racing.
After the scoldy hectoring of "Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor," it's a real treat to see a good old-fashioned R-rated movie with sex and violence and nudity that all feels relevant to the plot. And while the brilliantly labyrinthine script by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge might have been just a clever B-movie in the hands of lesser filmmakers, Boyle and his regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle jazz up the proceedings with a spectrum of color and light that dazzles without overwhelming the story.
The three leads keep things hopping as well, with McAvoy and Cassel consistently keeping us guessing about their characters' intentions, with no one turning out to be quite what we originally imagined. It's a real showcase for the always captivating Dawson; at first, it seemed like she was tamping down her screen charisma too much in the service of playing a cool, intelligent professional, but it turns out her performance is as much about initially fooling the audience as she is the other characters. But that's all I'll say about it, except that she's phenomenal.
The less you know about "Trance" the better, so go see it before anyone can spoil it for you. And then prepare to want to see it again, armed with the knowledge of how things turn out and how the movie laid out all the clues in front of you the whole time.