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Originally published Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 3:01 PM

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‘Trance’: Hypnotic heist thriller plays mind games

A movie review of “Trance,” director Danny Boyle’s sleek psychological puzzler in which hypnotherapy is the key to unlocking the secret of where a stolen Goya masterpiece is hidden. James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson star.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3 stars

‘Trance,’ with James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson. Directed by Danny Boyle, from a screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. 101 minutes. Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images and language. Several theaters.

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What is reality? In “Trance,” only director Danny Boyle knows for sure. And he leaves it to the audience to try to figure out just what’s up, and what’s going down, in this sleek psychological puzzler.

The picture opens with a daring daylight robbery in which a Goya masterpiece is the target of a bold band of art thieves led by a Frenchman named Franck (Vincent Cassel). They burst in on a megabucks London auction but unexpectedly come up empty. They blame an inside man (played by James McAvoy) for the failure of the caper, but a bout of unpleasant torture — those fingernails will grow back someday, son — reveals that McAvoy’s character, Simon, can’t for the much-threatened life of him remember what he did with the painting. A bash on the head suffered during the heist has scrambled Simon’s brain and buried the memory of the painting’s hiding place somewhere deep in his subconscious.

The thieves eventually figure that maybe hypnotism will accomplish what fingernail removal can’t, and they seek the services of a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson). And that’s when things take a turn for the twisty. Welcome to a disorienting maze of interlocking mind games.

Boyle (director of the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire”), working from a script credited to Joe Ahearne and frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge (“Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting” are two of their past collaborations), artfully toys with audience perceptions of what, exactly, is going on here. The fact is, things get very inexact as it becomes increasingly unclear whether scenes we’re seeing represent the characters’ reality or whether it’s what they’re experiencing in a trance state induced by Elizabeth. To complicate matters even further, the audience is left to wonder just whose trance state is playing out at any particular moment. Is it Simon’s? Could it be Franck’s? Someone else’s?

The search for the hidden corner of Simon’s mind where the key to the painting’s hiding place resides uncovers a tangle of other secrets, some sexual in nature, some violent, some touching on scream-inducing primal fears.

It’s all one big guessing game, and that’s what makes the picture so enjoyable. The fun comes in the form of the surprises “Trance” springs on you every step of the way.

Enjoyable, too, are the performances, with each of the three main actors smoothly executing chameleonlike shifts of temperament that muddy perceptions of who here is the hero or heroine (if there in fact is one) and who is the villain.

All the major characters harbor concealed agendas that Boyle reveals in an adroit manner that ratchets up the tension until it’s released in a genuinely nightmarish conclusion.

Soren Andersen: asoren7575@yahoo.com

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