Danny Boyle tries his hand at a twisty, mindbending noir with this heist thriller and while the results are characteristically dynamic and compelling in terms of style and performance, the story gets so mired in upending our expectations that the complete package isn’t always narratively satisfying.
James McAvoy is Simon, an employee at an auction house who serves as the inside man for the theft of a valuable Goya painting. However, Simon’s rash decision to improvise earns him with a knock on the head courtesy of gang leader Franck (Vincent Cassel) and a case of amnesia regarding where he’s stashed the painting. Franck, desperate to find the loot, arranges for some sessions between Simon and hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to draw the location of the painting from Simon’s cloudy subconscious.
The concept of memory, or more specifically, memory loss, is a noir staple and well-suited to the genre since it immediately puts the protagonist suffering from it, and consequently the audience, on uncertain ground, unsure of who or what to trust. However, in most cases the audience can take at least some comfort in being relatively sure of the protagonist’s motives and of being able to put together the pieces alongside that character. Even in as disorienting a mystery film as Memento, to which there are some key similarities here, we can understand Guy Pearce’s goals and sympathize with his efforts to cut through his confusion. It’s okay if we’re confused because we know he is too.However, Boyle and screenwriters John Hodge and Joe Ahearn have taken the concept of the unreliable protagonist to another level. Normally the revelation that our main character isn’t who he or she seems comes as a surprise to us. Here we’re not only given characters we can’t trust from the outset but the filmmakers up the ante by not even giving us clarity as to exactly who our protagonist is. Is it Simon, duplicitous even to the audience from the opening monologue and possibly as much of a mystery to himself as to us? Is it Elizabeth, whose lingering looks at Simon from their first meeting and enthusiasm for getting involved in this criminal enterprise suggest she’s holding back some secrets as well?
These questions leave us constantly re-evaluating our perceptions. Normally this would be ideal for this type of thriller but the sheer volume of deceptions, double-crosses and possible triple-crosses becomes such a morass of ambiguity that it can be hard to get our footing. This isn’t aided by some big coincidences and a fair amount of implausibility, particularly the flimsy rationales that Elizabeth uses to manipulate her way deeper into the gang's scheme and the highly questionable depiction of hypnotism and its uses.
The mental exercise required to navigate all this is rewarded by some genuine surprises in the film’s second half. However, just when we might be dramatically satisfied, Boyle and company try one trick too many with a final climatic twist that either makes little sense given what’s been established or suggests such drastic implications for some of the characters that it really needs more time to be dealt with than is offered.
Boyle always puts together great looking movies and this is no exception. He’s managed to develop an interesting visual style over his filmography that is adaptable to each production and yet somehow personally distinctive. True to noir style, London is depicted in sleek lines and cool, steely hues, while Boyle's more off-kilter impulses are indulged in Simon’s stylized trance sessions, which are often disrupted by random, disturbing imagery as the line between his hypnotized state and his reality begins to blur.
The acting is predictably fine as well. McAvoy is well cast, using his natural charm to beguile us into wanting to sympathize with him even if we’re not sure we should, and Dawson does a solid job conveying Elizabeth’s laser-sharp perception. Cassel, no stranger to playing sleazy villains, is in a unique position as Franck. While he is a brutal criminal and would seem to be the ostensible villain, he is also the only character we have a pretty good grasp on from the start, making him simultaneously threatening and comforting.Watching the film, there are many small hints and clues about what's going on that would seem to make the film ideal for repeat viewings, but I suspect watching it again would make the story’s potential plot holes that much more obvious. However, the quality of the production and the actors make sorting through its stylish disorientation worth a look. I just wouldn't recommend reflecting on it much once the credits roll. Sometimes memory can be treacherous.