Things I Learned from… Trance

Art heist thriller Trance has had an interesting journey to your local cinema. Joe Ahearne’s script was originally a TV movie in 2001, but has now been picked up by British wunderkind Danny Boyle, polished by John Hodge, and hit the big screen.

In the end, Trance is a good old-fashioned thriller, and there are three things a thriller has to deliver:

Mystery. Someone is after our hero and he doesn’t know why. Something bad has happened around him, and he doesn’t know why – or even what. The danger is very clear, but what’s triggered the crisis is shrouded in mystery, and must be uncovered if the hero is to survive.

Conspiracy. The hero doesn’t know who to trust. Anyone could be out to get him – and frequently is. At times, the entire world of the movie seems to be ranged against him.

Betrayal. It’s no accident that the femme fatale was created by the thriller genre. There’ll always be someone who gets close to the hero specifically in order to betray him, and others who turn on him because it seems like the right or just thing to do.

Trance delivers admirably on all these elements, at first at least, and yet it’s a movie that’s left a lot of viewers feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. But why?

I think it may be because the movie effectively switches protagonists – and for a thriller, that’s fatal.

It isn’t giving away anything much to say that, about halfway through the movie, we start to spend a lot of time with hypnotherapist Elizabeth, as she becomes caught in a love triangle. From that point, Simon seems less and less like our protagonist –

And the thriller genre revolves around a clearly identified protagonist, because it’s only through him that we can experience that visceral thrill of mystery, conspiracy and betrayal. To feel the thrill of the thriller, we have to have a single, limited perspective – and if anyone else is also a protagonist, then our perspective is changed. They have new pieces of the mystery, they stand outside the conspiracy, they occupy a new place in the web of betrayals.

So, the moment we begin to see things from Elizabeth’s view as well as Simon’s, the three pillars of the thriller structure collapse and the visceral joy of the genre is gone…

3 comments on “Things I Learned from… Trance

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    I wondered how you managed to have such an eloquent definition of the Thriller genre on the tip of your tongue!

    > I think it may be because the movie effectively switches protagonists – and for a thriller, that’s fatal.

    For thrillers, or for movies in general? Psycho pulls this off but few movies have since.

    (If you’re ever looking at a project where you think you might want to switch protagonists and need to do it effectively, Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama has a great analysis of how Hitchcock makes it work in Psycho.)

  2. Lucy V says:

    ” … the movie effectively switches protagonists – and for a thriller, that’s fatal.”

    Got to disagree there, because of PSYCHO, but Shaula beat me to it. I still live in hope for another PSYCHO in the spec pile, but still waiting.

    Mystery, betrayal and conspiracy are definitely key elements to some thrillers, but I am unconvinced it’s necessary for ALL thrillers to *be* thrilling. If we consider the action thriller, this frequently shoots its load early on on *what* the mystery is, with it becoming a “race against time” instead. Similarly, lots of supernatural thrillers essentially become horrors in the second half, especially in the case of haunted house movies.

    On this basis then, the elements that I think ALL thrillers have are: 1) a problem or mission to be solved 3) usually within a given timeframe (so a deadline, effectively) 3) high stakes (usually life/death)

    • debbiemoon says:

      I bow to your expertise!

      (For those who don’t know, Lucy is the author of Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, which is an excellent overview of thriller writing…)

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