When it comes to the films we associate him with, a lot has changed since the ‘90s when Robert Rodriguez was among the most exciting indie names in cinema with the inventive likes of “El Mariachi,” “From Dusk Till Dawn” and the best segment of the “Four Rooms” anthology. He now has several “Spy Kids” movies, high-profile music videos and middling efforts like “Alita: Battle Angel” under his belt, though this critic can’t help but think of him as the same scrappy independent auteur of decades past in search of a meaty, inventive story.
Which is why the Ben Affleck-starring “Hypnotic” looked and sounded exciting, at least on paper, signaling a brainy yet accessible neo-noir detective tale with an original Rodriguez spin. Sadly, the film is a tedious and erratically cut caper, whose shape-shifting story feels like an uneven and over-plotted rehash of various recognizable films that we’ve seen before.
“Hypnotic” follows the gloomy Austin detective Danny Rourke (an unremarkable Affleck) who is grieving the mysterious disappearance of his young daughter, Minnie. The incident, replayed for us in tired slow-mo flashbacks, is nothing short of freaky. Watching his daughter play within his eyesight, Danny gets distracted for just a second, long enough for a stranger to abduct her. We learn the suspect was been caught, but no trace of the little girl was ever discovered.
We absorb all this at the start of the film as Danny seems to be at a routine therapist appointment. “Hypnotic” briefly gets more interesting in its next sequence, when a bank robber (a menacing William Fichtner) orchestrates a robbery using nothing but his hypnotizing powers to control people’s minds. Chaos reigns in the streets of Austin, with people inexplicably removing their clothes in public, committing gruesome suicides and obeying whatever this insidious man curses them to do. Watching the action from a van, Danny finally barges into the bank and finds various clues to solve the puzzle, one of which reads, “Find Lev Dellrayne” on a polaroid photo of his daughter.
But is any of this real?
According to Rodriguez himself, who screened the film as a work-in-progress in this year’s SXSW film festival, there are Hitchcock inspirations throughout “Hypnotic.” Except, you will be hard pressed to detect that connection anywhere other than the film’s single-word title that nods to the likes of “Vertigo” and “Spellbound.” Instead, get ready for an endless spectacle of homages to movies like “The Matrix,” “Inception,” “Memento,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Shutter Island;” all tales of forlorn men in search of answers to make sense of their collapsing worlds of frequently changing realities.
“Hypnotic” reveals secret after secret until they become near-impossible to bother with, yet the story is quite high concept and reliant on noir tropes. Rodriguez liberally draws something out of all of the aforesaid films, but dismisses their crucial world building and character development in the story, written jointly by Rodriguez and Max Borenstein. In that regard, it often feels like the filmmaker has just thrown the viewer into a rough draft of something with incessantly morphing ideas, as well as cheap-looking effects and visuals.
“Hypnotic” is one of those films that is impossible to write about without spoiling, so those who want to go into it fresh: stop reading now. For the rest, there are various Russian Doll-style realities-within-realities inside Rodriguez’s messy concept, and the definition of reality in this story depends on what level of the truth you’re in at any given moment. (So far, so Christopher Nolan.)
In any case, Danny gets a taste of a version of these realities during a session with the gifted psychic Diana Cruz (Alice Braga). She drops several words and theories into their conversation: things like “hypnotic” (a mind-controlling person), “construct” (a makeshift physical world that shows you something other than the truth), and “Domino,” which is…who knows? Who cares?
The deeper Rodriguez goes into the rabbit hole of questions, steering the tale further away from a grieving dad, the less interesting “Hypnotic” becomes, presenting us a world where everyone either possesses some kind of mind-bending power and/or conceals something.
It doesn’t help that Rodriguez’s film looks clumsily DIY (especially with an elaborate set-piece in Mexico that repurposes an “Alita” location), but the real issue is the speed in which the filmmaker moves through the tale. Along the way, he seems to have forgotten to give us reasons to care about Danny’s fight in a film that tries too hard to feel cool, but ultimately lacks depth, unlike the movies that seem to have inspired him.
In the end, when “Hypnotic” finally discloses all its answers and hints at a sequel no one is asking for (let’s hope), you might be surprised by your own emotional indifference towards the resolution. What might even be more surprising is how little fun there is to be had in a film that ought to spellbind the viewer through a cheeky adventure. Instead, the whole affair just feels like a bumpy theme park ride that spits one out after a series of awkward and uncomfortably dizzying twists and turns.