The master of DIY actioners throws a sleepy Ben Affleck into a warmed-over Nolan clone, though it’s not without its inventive charms.
There’s at once too much, and somehow not enough, of the whimsical DIY spirit of writer-director Robert Rodriguez in his latest film, the shaky B-thriller Hypnotic. The Austin native made his name in the halcyon days of ’90s indie filmmaking, shooting his first feature (El Mariachi) for a mere $7,000 at the tender age of 23. Since then, he’s leveraged that inventiveness into a cottage industry of his own based out of his hometown of Austin, Texas, whether it’s kid-friendly fare (Spy Kids), big-budget CGI blockbusters (Alita: Battle Angel), moody noirs (Sin City) or grindhouse splatterfests (Planet Terror, From Dusk Till Dawn). Hypnotic is all and none of those things, a chintzy lo-fi Christopher Nolan riff that doesn’t have nearly enough life to work. And yet, there are just enough charming elements to save it from outright dismissal.
First among these is Ben Affleck, glowering through the proceedings as Texan detective Daniel Rourke, a man reeling from the disappearance of his young daughter years ago, and who leverages that pain into his work. When staking out a potential bank heist, he notices a mysterious figure (William Fichtner) muttering strange commands to passersby and guards — ones which cause them to perceive reality differently. Tell someone “It’s a furnace out there,” and they start stripping off their clothes to stay cool. Tell guards they’ve “got the wrong man,” and you just might turn enemies into henchmen.
As Rourke soon discovers, with the help of a hypnotist (Alice Braga) who knows more than she lets on, he’s stumbled into the world of “hypnotics” — who can use their psychic powers to reshape a person’s reality. From there, it’s a merry chase to hunt down Fichtner’s rogue hypnotic (archly named Lev Dell Rayne), both to stop him and to figure out just what he might know about Rourke’s missing daughter.
Shades of Inception abound, along with a host of other Nolanesque head-scratching notions — the nature of memory and our capacity for self-deception (Memento), the malleable nature of time (Inception, Tenet), the unbreakable bonds between parent and child (Interstellar). But, of course, it’s filtered through Rodriguez’s homespun sensibilities and a modest $70 million budget; the mind-bending hypnotic powers largely play themselves out through hazy CG stretching meant to emulate the folding-city splendor of Nolan’s 2010 classic. There’s nondescript brown-and-grey cinematography aplenty, and the droning score hardly offers up any kind of excitement. And the confusion registers in the performances: Affleck spends most of the runtime with a frown curling his face, chomping through platitudinal dialogue like “We’re setting ourselves free… from them,” and Braga spends much of the first half as an exposition machine.
And yet, it’s hard to escape the little quirks Rodriguez injects into this thing, the kind of late-summer B-movie many of us would happily put on TV on a lazy afternoon. The Austin setting gives him plenty of room to pop in nods to breakfast tacos, Stetson-wearing sheriffs, and some of his regular day players. (Jeff Fahey even shows up with a shotgun, as if conjured by nostalgic rewrites, as if Rodriguez had finally found that lost reel of Planet Terror.) As its initial premise gives way to a Russian doll of nested twists, revealing themselves one after the other, it’s not hard to see Hypnotic as an extension of his own filmmaking instincts: at one point, the film takes the shape of something like Von Trier’s Dogville, albeit one populated by gun-toting bellhops. As each layer of reality peels back, the script gets sillier and sillier, and a bit more endearing as a result.
It’s hard not to evaluate Hypnotic within the context of its troubled path to completion. First conceived in 2002, Rodriguez has had the film’s central premise stuck in his head for nearly two decades. Production first set up shop in Los Angeles, before the pandemic forced them to move to Toronto, before eventually putting down stakes in Rodriguez’s backyard of Austin. Production breaks and rewrites plagued the entire thing, so it’s honestly a marvel this thing even came out, albeit to little fanfare. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a right old mess, a hodgepodge of decade-late ideas squeezed through a fiasco-laden production.
But look past the artifice, see through to the truth of things, and you’ll recognize the firmament of a “real” movie — one with real stars, real sets, and unabashed dedication to its own ideas. Sure, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as it should, even with a brisk 90-minute runtime. Its sins are easy to forgive because it reminds us of the past we used to enjoy, when movies like this could relish in their own kind of cult appeal. That’s the ultimate spell of a Robert Rodriguez picture.
Hypnotic is currently playing in theaters.