Imagine a film that’s a mashup of Scanners, Memento, and Inception, where things are endlessly unwrapped to be shown as other than what you – and the protagonist – thinks is going on. Those are the main inspirations for the twisty, entertaining sci-fi thriller Hypnotic. Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it’s an exercise in paying attention to subtle details and clues as the tightly paced 93min film unspools. It also suffers with an ending that can best be described as what happens when you run out of ideas and just need to call a wrap.
Danny Rourke (Ben Affleck) is a troubled Austin police detective who blames himself for the mysterious disappearance of his young daughter years earlier. He’s working with a department therapist and has been cleared to get back to work. His partner Nicks (JD Pardo) shares that there’s been an anonymous tip-off that a major local bank is about to have a safe deposit box stolen. No teller holdup, no mass lockbox theft, just the one box. When they arrive on scene, however, it’s all very strange: Bystanders are suddenly behaving most oddly, adding a touch of chaos to the scene. The instigator of the chaos seems to be an ominous and threatening older man later identified as Dellrayne (William Fichtner); is he the criminal mastermind who’s orchestrating this strange robbery?
Investigating leads brings Rourke and Nicks to the shop of two-bit psychic and fortune-teller Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who is quite concerned that she has somehow become implicated in the activities of Dellrayne. More chaos – remember, I did mention Scanners earlier, right? – and Rourke and Cruz are on the run from a mysterious government agency called Division. An ostensible offshoot of the CIA, it has been identifying “hypnotics” in the general public and training them to be powerful enough to disrupt society. Hypnotics can not just read minds, they can actually inject thoughts into those minds too.
If a viewer at this point says “hmm… so what have we seen in the film that’s real, and what is some sort of mental projection meant to confuse us viewers in addition to the characters in the story?” then they’re on the ball. In fact, like Hitchcock’s superb Rear Window, cinema itself is inherently a fantasy world where people pretend to be others and we are asked to believe what we see, even if we know it’s all pretend. Actors don’t really die in movies, babies aren’t born on camera, and animals aren’t really as smart as we’re led to believe. Oh, and they didn’t have IMAX cameras 500 years ago either.
Back to the movie, though. Rourke and Cruz escape the shadowy Dellrayne and his mind-controlled minions to a typical Mexican border town (Laredo, perhaps) just to meet up with uber-hacker Jeremiah (Jackie Earle Haley). He informs them that Dellrayne and the Division are after a secret weapon called “Domino” that Rourke might or might not have stolen.
It’s just about impossible to go any further with an explanation of the storyline without littering this review with spoilers, but suffice to say, just as Inception offered a story within a story within, well, another story, so does Hypnotic offer a very different story to what it appears. It’s very entertaining and will surprise even the most jaded viewer with some of its twists and turns.
However, it’s also a flawed film, muchly due to the phoned-in performance from Ben Affleck. We know he can act, but in this film, he barely shows any emotion, something that’s particularly obvious when he’s sharing scenes with the wonderfully expressive Braga. The visual effects and set design are both very good, as we’ve come to expect from Rodriguez. The ending? Even 90 seconds before the fade to black it could have gone either way, but the last scene just felt like something better had shown up for the cast and crew and they needed to get this film in the can so they could move on. Disappointing.
Nonetheless, I can’t deny that I enjoyed the film and will likely watch it a second time to see how much of the story is hinted at in the earlier scenes for a hyper-alert viewer, and how much is subtly changed to fit the narrative storyline. Ultimately, Hypnotic would be a perfectly serviceable streaming film on Netflix or Amazon Prime, so it’s a treat to see it on the big screen. Then again, I was the only person in my theater so it might be showing up on your favorite streaming channel sooner than you can say “are you trying to hypnotize me?”.