I’ve always admired an author or filmmaker that could delve into the deep, dark recesses of the human psyche and coax out a psychological horror or thriller. By ‘always’ I mean from when my age had just entered the double digits and my tastes in movies and books began to embrace a more mature appreciation. With the recent trend of pushing horror to a Rube Goldberg approach to torture and thrillers used erroneously as a label to action driven, spy drive action flicks, it is most reassuring to notice a cadre of filmmakers seeking to return these genres to their traditional roles. The movie considered here, ‘Trace’ is an honest attempt to accomplish this laudable goal. As the title implies the central theme will somehow involve hypnosis to some degree. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding hypnosis are many but the public perception is one that affords the screenwriter fertile ground for plot points to drive a story. From the complete overriding abdication of free will to subtle compulsions that can go contrary to the normal proscribed actions of the subject. While much of that is Hollywood hype one use of hypnosis has be validated to greatly enhance the ability to recall observations or facts. For those interested the Science Channel popular series, ‘Mythbusters’ has explored all of these facets. In the context of this movie hypnosis is introduced to help a person remember but soon the focus shifts to a deadly blurring between reality and altered consciousness.
Simon (James McAvoy) is a man with an unusual vocation; an auctioneer employed by a concern specializing in the acquisition of pieces of fine art. Understandably the amounts of money changing hands that he oversees are frequently in the rarified strata ranging into the eight figures. These are museum quality pieces of art purchased and sold by the upper echelon of wealthy collectors. One day while at the auction house his coworker, Franck (Vincent Cassel) brandishes a pistol in order to steal an extremely valuable paint Simon was transporting. When Franck’s attention is diverted Simon attempts to overpower his assailant but in the following scuffle receives a blow to the head resulting in amnesia. When Franck arrives at his home he checks the carrying case to discover it is empty. Desperate to obtain the missing paintings Franck and his cohorts kidnap Simon in order to obtain the information from him the amnesia has buried the location so deeply that even under torture Simon is unable to tell his captors what the need to know. Realizing he can’t tell what he can’t remember they determine their only option is to unlock the memories; their only option is to obtain the expert services of a professional hypnotist.
Simon is forced to select a hypnotist from a catalogue; he chooses a woman named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) who accepts the assignment. Elizabeth and Franck enter into a relationship giving the audience a degree of plausibility for what will follow. One of the most arduous factors of psychological thrillers is to pull the audience into a situation they consider feasible and can identify with. Because of Simon’s understandably agitated and unreceptive state Elizabeth has to employ some unorthodox changes to her standard methodology. She lowers Simon’s guard by seducing him. At this point Elizabeth manages to hypnotize Simon. Soon afterwards Simon has a dream. In it his captors are about to kill him when he turns the table on the killing them instead. As part of the dream Simon does recall what happened to the painting. Upon awakening Simon turns to see Elizabeth is gone; off to get the painting herself. This ignites a cascade of action between Elizabeth, Simon and Franck along with his nefarious associates. Additional information is doled out carefully, with an expert care that teases the audience making certain their full attention is riveted to the screen. Just when think you have a handle on things or feel you understand the motivations a twist in the road is placed directly in front of you.
Danny Boyle has been building his stylistic expression of psychological manipulation for a considerable portion of his film career. One of his earliest works, ‘Trainspotting’, gave the audience a chilling insight into the dismal, myopic existence of a heroin addict. He followed up that success with a notable twist on the zombie apocalypse film ’28 Days Later’. He then helmed a movie that won eight Academy Awards including Best Director, ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’. In this instance he brings a rare perspective to a story that under the hand of a less talented filmmaker would have been little more than another heist film. Instead the plot diverges from a tale of crime to an exploration of the inner workings and motivations of the mind. The plot points that assume the center stage are ones that deal with lust, betrayal and subterfuge, primitive aspects of our psychological composition that often lead to the rose behavior our kind is capable of perpetrating.in this he worked seamlessly with casting director and co-director in India on ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’, Loveleen Tandan. This feminine perspective greatly helped to hold the threads of the story together and give Ms Dawson a firm narrative voice.
Much of the success of this film is a result of the director understanding the nature of the script. The screenplay was written by Simon Beaufoy based on the novel by Vikas Swarup. Mr. Beaufoy was another part of the juggernaut hit ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ and the cohesiveness afford by such a previous collaboration is evident as greatly beneficial. This tightly knit unity behind the scenes provided a solid foundation to showcase the well-crafted performances. James McAvoy may be best known recently for his portrayal of the young, ambulatory Professor Xavier in the prequel X-Men film but he is in the process of building a balanced career with roles that continue to challenge is growing abilities. His chemistry with Ms Dawson is palpable coming off the screen to build an emotional context for the story. When combined with the psychological elements intrinsically infused in the script the outcome is a film that is gripping.