With imagination and pure cinematic ingenuity, the ‘El Mariachi’ director’s new mindbender (shown as a work in progress at SXSW) reminds us how much fun it is to watch the ‘Argo’ star in action.
Don’t trust anything you see or hear in “Hypnotic,” a noggin-jogging thriller with more twists and turns than Minnie’s tightly braided ponytail. Who is Minnie? She is the girl who disappears in the film’s opening scene, while police detective father Daniel Rourke (Ben Affleck) looks away for a moment. Or does she? Depending on how your mind works, there’s a chance that Minnie doesn’t even exist. The perpetrator was caught, but Minnie’s body was never found – a clue that this was not a typical disappearance.
Your typical popcorn-munching multiplex patron would never suspect how deep this Russian doll mystery goes. Better buckle up and come along for the ride in the latest example of creativity-within-constraints from resourceful writer-director Robert Rodriguez. Taking a page from “The Matrix,” “Limitless” and “Memento” — along with entire chapters from sci-fi trickster Philip K. Dick — this clever mix of special effects and practical ingenuity puts Affleck in a funny position, and the slightly grizzled star still has the knotted charisma to pull it off.
One minute Rourke is chasing a bank robber with the power to bend people’s minds, the next he’s on the run from the very same psychic. Keeping up is like working out in a gym where gravity keeps changing. Just when things start to get heavy, the floor drops out from under you.
This much is pretty constant for most of the film, which premiered at SXSW as a “work in progress”: Affleck plays a shallow film-noir archetype, the damaged detective who leans more on his chiseled cheekbones than deep character work, which is just as well, since the only psychology the audience needs from Rourke is (a) that he misses Minnie and (b) that he’s a pit bull in any case, willing to ignore orders and put himself in harm’s way no matter what he believes in Rodriguez and co-writer Max Borenstein (who has written the last few Godzilla movies) make it clear in the first reel as he watches an impossible bank robbery unfold from a surveillance van.
As things heat up, Rourke rushes in and retrieves a clue that reads “Find Lev Dellrayne” from a safe, and quicker thanks you can say “Keyzer Söze,” the wild goose chase is on. The mastermind behind the robbery – and at least two others that also involve spectacular suicides of brainwashed bystanders – is played by “Prison Break” manhunter William Fichtner, a so-called “hypnotic” who possesses the ability to influence others. Pursuing him to the roof of a parking garage across from the bank, Rourke sees this stranger whisper “You’ve got the wrong man” to his colleagues, and the next thing he knows, they’re turning their guns on him.
The less you know going in, the more fun the movie will be. Hypnotists wear scarlet coats, while the film’s more subtly dressed femme fatale is a psychic named Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who also has special powers. Rourke is right not to trust her at first, although Fichtner’s character – who might be this Dellrayne guy – seems determined to kill her and Rourke, so sticking with her seems like the best move for now. Driven by a score from Rodriguez’s son Rebel, “Hypnotic” moves quickly enough that audiences don’t have much time to dwell on the not-insignificant inconsistencies, though Rodriguez approaches the entire endeavor with a pure sense of filmmaking-as-play that won this critic.
At a certain point in the film, Rourke discovers (spoiler alert, this episode) that some of his experiences are “hypnotic constructs” – meaning that people are not what they appear to be, and entire situations that he ( and we) have witnessed, could not have been more than the force of suggestion. He might even be able to do those tricks as well, which puts “Hypnotic” in a very fun (for most, frustrating for others) place where pretty much anything can happen. In some scenes, the horizon lifts and folds over itself, à la “Inception”. In another, the camera pans out to reveal that Rodriguez has recycled a back alley from “Alita: Battle Angel” and that everything is a movie set, though why that is and what it all means is best discovered on screen.
The film’s one-word title is a hat tip to Hitchcock, and the film’s MacGuffin (that is, the one everyone wants while the audience amuses itself with its pursuit) is an all-powerful hypnotic called “Domino.” The goal is to first find the puzzle pieces and then to assemble them into something resembling a coherent picture. With the plot engine running overtime, Rodriguez returns to the case of Minnie, whom Rourke never forgot, and whose fate brings everything else into focus for a climactic surprise—namely, “Hypnotic” for all the pyrotechnics and blankets. has mesmerized us into caring about these characters.
Rodriguez knows better than virtually any filmmaker out there that film is a form of hypnosis. It’s all light handed, designed to make us care about a story and characters that don’t exist, so why not embrace that spirit in the execution? Most of the time, “Hypnotic” looks good (Rodriguez shared filming duties with Pablo Berron, who ignited the atmospheric scissor scene), but sometimes you can see the seams — which is fine, since it’s all a construction anyway. And just when you think the ride is over, there’s a final surprise in the credits that hints at where a sequel might take place.