Robert Rodriguez Pushes Ben Affleck Through Tired Genre Tropes In ‘Hypnotic’


via Relativity Media

Director Robert Rodriguez is famous for leaning into genre on a small scale. He broke into the business by repurposing the same city blocks to shoot El Mariachi and Desperado, linked up with Quentin Tarantino in mostly a single location for From Dusk till Dawn, then confined his actors to half-built sets and green screens for Spy Kids and Sin City. While limited in breadth, those early films had a real flair of personality: Rodriguez was so hands-on with everything from editing to scoring that the projects absolutely brimmed with his trademark go-getter energy. In Hypnotic, the smallness of the world is intentional, suiting a narrative that doubles and even triples back on itself, but somewhere the auteur’s dynamo voice has gotten lost in the folds.

Ben Affleck plays Danny Rourke, a detective working in Austin who’s mourning the disappearance of his seven-year-old daughter. He seemingly foils a robbery pulled off by various people under hypnosis, then loses the prime suspect (William Fichtner), who speaks key phrases to compel strangers to do anything he wants. Forensics lead Rourke to a fortuneteller, Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who claims that she and the man who escaped the bank heist are former government-trained psychics called “Hypnotics.” Rourke is convinced that the man from the heist has something to do with his daughter’s disappearance, so he and Cruz go on the lam to solve the mystery.

Rodriguez, who co-wrote the script with Max Borenstein (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island), has apparently been trying to make Hypnotic since 2002. Yet it seems the characters haven’t gestated for nearly as long as the byzantine narrative. Everyone feels stock from the jump, with the filmmaker counting on a mid-film reveal to add nuance to his leads. His assumption is not only wrong, but a tad insulting to viewers craving just one multi-dimensional character to anchor this assembly line of “gotcha” moments. Instead, every player is a bluff on a bluff; even Affleck’s hero starts concocting his own double-blinds after a while.

As a result, viewers are left with primarily one thing to keep them going: the audacity of Hypnotic’s narrative. But even that is ultimately worth less than most modern brainteasers, no matter how many ersatz-Inception visuals Rodriguez throws at us. If absolutely nothing is what it seems, it’s easy for a storyteller to muddy the stakes. You can only chip away at reality so far until everything starts to feel sketched and feckless. And any type of resolution reads as either disingenuous or completely unearned, as viewers were never invested in the characters’ emotional journeys in the first place.

Of course, Rodriguez could have nabbed some points on the back end if he had adequately expressed his themes’ relevance for society today. In a time when people around the world blindly follow demagogues who offer nothing but an appeal to their prejudices, it’s not exactly a stretch to suggest hypnosis is happening writ large, at least at the level of metaphor. However, Rodriguez seems interested in such notions only as fodder for jokes, such as when Rourke and Cruz hide out in the bunker of another runaway psychic who keeps newspaper headlines presumably linked to mass hypnosis (including Brexit, of course).

It’s good for a guffaw or two, but Rodriguez proves over and over during the brief runtime that he’s more interested in the mechanics of mind control than the commentary it affords. This would be fine if said mechanics brought about exciting reveals or boundary-busting action scenes; yet the revelations typically consist of characters simply saying aloud “This isn’t real,” while the chases feel tragically rote. Chaotic car wrecks are shot from too many angles, and the trippy hypnosis visuals feel compromised by budget restraints. There’s one sequence where someone sets up a massive set of dominoes that gives V for Vendetta a run for its money, but that’s the best on offer.

Perhaps there’s no better argument for why Hypnotic fails at engagement than the host of muted performances. Fichtner and Braga have both delivered quality genre work for decades, and although the former manages a bit of menace here and there, the latter is stuck with reciting pages of explanation about how tricking people works, and how tricking people who trick people is a tricky business. Then there’s Affleck, who has turned in a slew of good performances recently, from The Last Duel to Air. Here, he seems aloof, chewing stale lines with a locked grimace and pitching his voice somewhere between gravel and spring allergies. He may be playing hypnotized at points, but from the fifth row of the auditorium, it looks an awful lot like sleepwalking.


You can only chip away at reality so far until everything in ‘Hypnotic’ starts to feel sketched and feckless. Any type of resolution reads as either disingenuous or completely unearned, as viewers were never invested in the characters’ emotional journeys in the first place.

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