Not to be confused with the Danny Boyle thriller, the Malayalam pic Trance is both another example of Indian regional cinema's willingness to mix-and-match wildly disparate plots and tones, and an opportunity to see a film going borderline cuckoo in the attempt. The roots of its madness are visible in the half-hour before the title appears on screen. It opens as gentle satirical comedy, centred on one Viju Prasad (Fahadh Faasil), a small-time small-town hustler, peddling a motivational course called Viju's Success Juice to a public unaware he has holes in his socks, works as a waiter to make ends meet, and lives in a poky walk-up with a badly depressed brother. Here's where the material starts to get more shaded, contrasting Viju's shabby, can-do optimism with someone who appears beyond all hope. When his sibling commits suicide, Viju picks up the unused antidepressants - happy pills that serve as a crutch and a link to what he's just lost - and strikes out for Mumbai, where he hits the big time in a manner neither he nor we really anticipate. Just how slippery Anwar Rasheed's film is can be discerned from a single, isolated scene: Viju being summoned to a swanky hotel for a meeting with two suits who've seen his online promotional videos - an early source of humour - and whom we think are going to appoint him to pep up their workforce. The expectation: that little Viju is being tapped to provide the BS corporations lap up and run on. The reality: the suits have another plan, namely to appoint our guy as "Pastor Joshua Carlton", miracle-working frontman for the megacash-generating megachurch into which they're diversifying. What starts out as a comedy about credulity suddenly veers into a thriller about capitalism and control. Viju - sorry, "Pastor Joshua" - starts to run rings around his followers; the suits run rings around him; and the film runs rings around us, then around itself.
Slippery it may be - in this respect, Trance is not dissimilar to its Western namesake - but it flows, which is what you want from a movie that clocks in twelve minutes shy of three hours. Within the first of those hours, Viju has been coached to cure the sick and heal the blind in heavily stage-managed spectacles, the kind of setpieces the movies do so well in part because they're a more honest form of the same deception (shepherding on actors, overcoming adversity way too easily, geeing up a crowd, hallelujah). Not long after that, our compromised hero goes viral and global, madeover into the slickest of shysters, and pronouncing himself the Chosen One on TV. Yet as his perpetual pillpopping indicates, he's really no more than a timebomb in an Armani suit, self-medicating to avoid dealing with the realities of multiple family traumas and the fact his actual identity has been wiped out or overwritten. It offers a hell of a role for the much-admired Faasil, a Paul Giamatti-like chameleon who transforms over the course of these three hours from broadly harmless middle-aged schlub into a TV-friendly con artist without ever losing sight of the wreck of a man lurking beneath the Pastor's polished surface; it won't take much - a chatshow recorded live, a few unusually pointed questions - to bring that wreck into the open. (Shades here of Tom Cruise being grilled by April Grace in Magnolia: no bad thing.) Yet we spend much of Trance waiting for this shapeshifter to assume his final form - and for the film resting squarely on this character's shoulders to reveal its own true identity.
Shortly after the intermission, Rasheed and screenwriter Vincent Vadakkan reroute through far pulpier territory, and here I think a wild ride may start to get too bumpy for some. For one thing, we suddenly seem an awful long way from that prologue's sincerity with regard to matters of mental health: insanity becomes a plot device and an acceptable destination, and there will be those who find themselves slowly backing away from the screen as they would from anybody else encountered in public gnashing their teeth and foaming at the mouth. Another issue is the influx of underprocessed new characters, the handiwork of a writer and director who can't stop themselves inventing and adding, who seem as hooked on creation as Viju does on his happy pills. (One such character points out to the increasingly manic Pastor that "even God slept on the seventh day"; you might wish Vadakkan and Rasheed had heeded their own wisdom.) It's never less than watchable, but Trance starts spiralling, in places reaching out towards more conventional plot stabilisers (such as a floated romance between comparably broken individuals), in others ghosting away in the direction of barely credible conspiracy theories. By the time the finale pitches us among the thrashing limbs of the Pastor's "Mega Miracle Fest", the movie has succumbed to its own form of mania. As a means for Vadakkan and Rasheed to announce themselves, these loud yelps are quite something; as a coherent night's entertainment, it's but variable, though it has a real miracle worker on hand in editor Praveen Prabhakar, who snaps its abundant ideas and moods together, at great pace, and without letting us see too many sutures. Though sometimes obscured by that surfeit of invention, there is a throughline in that, at every turn, a soul is at stake. As phoney preachers and smart filmmakers alike have realised, there may be nothing more urgent than that.
Trance is now streaming via Prime Video.