Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Trance and other ‘hush-hush’ films

Danny Boyle’s Trance is one of an apparently rare breed where the less you know about it beforehand, the better. Though the nature of increasingly spoilerific trailers and other marketing materials has made it (generally speaking) harder to avoid news and information about films months in advance, there are some in particular that deserve to be dodged. I find it appropriate to do this with the majority of films these days, but there exists a certain sub-genre of twisty-turny thrillers which rely on their tension, on audience anxiety, and on the ability to spring a surprise.

Failing to experience these feelings whilst watching said film for the first time is to dampen its effects quite remarkably, and could perhaps be likened to viewing a comedy but already knowing the punch-line. The laughter, in this case, would likely be muted; either way, it would certainly affect your viewing pleasure in some way, most likely for the negative. In fact, the reliance on previewing a film before actually seeing the thing itself can often lead to spoilers, and the loss of dramatic impact draws parallels with failing to witness the film in the right conditions.

Whilst it’s perfectly acceptable to watch films on television (my primary way of watching films), they’re intended for the big-screen in a certain aspect ratio with a lot of noise and colour. It becomes infinitely easier to immerse yourself in this experience that – hopefully, at least – is also furnished with an audience prepared to give the film the respect it deserves (i.e. no mobile phones, no eating a three-course meal, no engagement in soft porn). But though these analogies provide a comparison as to what we could be losing out on if we don’t avoid the spoiler-filled trailers or interviews – particularly of those films that depend upon their surprises – the question then is ‘how do we do it?’

Not many big, mainstream films will go for such an angle in the first place – particularly not the Hollywood releases – because of the necessity to promote the hell out of the film. This means a tag line, various posters, many interviews, trailers and much, much more. The on-the-nose publicity machine involved in Hollywood films doesn’t do (and has no interest in) subtlety, and so their desire is to get people talking about the film so that they go and see it upon release. And their way of doing this is – rather than giving people snippets of what’s to come, or by being cryptic in order to entice viewers – is instead to be as blatant as possible by information overload.

Boyle’s film, then, is a bit of a surprise even before the lights go down. In this regard it’s fairly unconventional, and whilst there are notable others that come to mind, they tend to be independent films that rely on this word-of-mouth ‘intrigue’ advertising, i.e. the exact opposite to the moneybags of Hollywood and their way of pushing material down the throats of consumers.

What’s interesting in this regard is the word-of-mouth pitch between friends and families, and their attempts to sell these films to others who might be interested without revealing too much. Two films that come to mind here are Time Crimes and Dear Zachary. Neither of these are particularly well-known, especially for the casual viewer. However, whilst both excel in their own field, their plots are near-indescribable, simply because of the amount of revelations within them. To describr any little twist is to take away the factor that was first mentioned in relation to Boyle’s Trance, which is the opposite of what our intentions are (or should be). Therefore whilst I’m able to say here that Time Crimes is a sci-fi horror-cum-thriller which involves time travel and has clear nods to Pan’s Labyrinth, to reveal much more would be to take it a step too far.

Similarly, Dear Zachary is a harrowing documentary which seems to attract rave reviews from anyone who watches it, and is deeply affecting. It covers the tale of one man’s life recollected through his friends and family as well as the custody battle for his son. The real trouble with the likes of Zachary in particular was an issue of obtainability. It’s easy enough to tell somebody to “just watch it” when talking about Trance because they can go out and do just that. But that wasn’t the case for many films, until now.

Fortunately, the word-of-mouth praise and limited critical response has resulted in Zachary becoming a documentary sensation, which in turn has led to it landing on the US Netflix (and the same goes for Time Crimes). The only real solution to the lack of pre-judgement of some films is to admit that there isn’t a problem, and to embrace this alternative viewing experience.

Therefore, if you want to be entertained with a colourful neo-noir-like thriller full of twists, then Danny Boyle’s Trance will be right up your street. But my real plea is to make sure you watch the engaging Time Crimes and the devastating Dear Zachary if you have any means of doing so, and for goodness sake: don’t read anything about it beforehand. Some films just don’t need it.

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