Ben Affleck and Robert Rodriguez take big swings on a small canvas with the trippy misfire “Hypnotic.”
Rodriguez and co-writer Max Borenstein (the talent that contributed to the Godzilla and King Kong reboots) weave one-twist too many in their overly familiar tale of people who can control the minds of lesser humans and warp reality itself. It’s a dreadfully uneven film that would have benefitted from an episodic streaming series format. In that more forgiving medium, gaps in the disjointed storyline might have gained greater context providing the movie with much-needed emotional depth.
But in barely an hour and a half, the limits of even Affleck and Braga’s abilities to engross us become abundantly clear. Viewers will shake their heads in disbelief when the film delivers its sanctimonious first conclusion. But as the post-credits sequence (yeah, it’s got one of those) storms in, loud guffaws might define audience reaction.
And to be fair to everyone involved, Rodriquez and Affleck are slumming it here with what appears to be a hastily produced mini-thriller with science fiction elements. The story has Affleck playing a police detective named Danny Rourke. We are initially introduced to him while he’s in a therapy session.
Rourke lost his daughter in a mysterious abduction. As he prepares to return to work after being cleared by a psychologist, he remains obsessed with finding his missing child. And when a strange bank robbery triggers a memory of the little girl, Rourke digs deeper, following a peculiar man named Dellrayne (a stone-faced to the extreme William Fichtner) down a hypnotic rabbit hole.
In Rourke’s investigation, he encounters an alluring medium named Diana (Alice Braga). She possesses the hypnotic gift that essentially makes someone the unwitting pawn of the hypnotist. The power is given an immediate overwhelming effect, and Dellrayne can instantly bend a person to his will. He’s able to make people shoot each other and do all manner of terrible things.
Could this man lead Rourke to his daughter? Will Diana help him? Frankly, most viewers will care less. The narrative is almost incomprehensible, with constant shifts that are off-putting and become comically uninventive. If you can get through the meandering setup, the movie gains momentum in the latter third with a tense sequence between Diana and Rourke involving a pair of scissors.
But so much of “Hypnotic” is manipulated in frustrating ways. By the time an attempt was made to explain the inconsistencies, I was too bored to engage.
It was good to see actor Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach in 2009’s “Watchmen”) in a small role. But his casual performance is almost the only warm and authentic feeling in the entire movie. Affleck is wooden and very tired looking here, but these attributes are expected for the role of a haggard and grieving man. Braga’s character’s nonsensical pivots make Diana cartoonish in a way that only serves the plot instead of achieving some kind of campy silliness.
Fichtner is channeling Agent Smith from “The Matrix” franchise. It’s a convincing enough job to play the villain with a robotic and flat emotional reaction, but it is not consistent with the organic origins of Dellrayne. And when 1990s b-movie action star Jeff Fahey shows up toting a shotgun, the entire production looks increasingly low-rent. Fahey is always a welcomed presence, but the tone of “Hypnotic” isn’t on his wavelength.
Not everything that Rodriguez is doing here is all bad. “Hypnotic” is an original story that feels derivative from better movies like Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” In my head, the top prominently featured in that excellent psychological thriller is still spinning.
The abilities of the hypnotics are undeniably influenced by the work of writers like Stephen King, who decades ago did this sort of thing a little better in his entertaining but lesser 1980 novel “Firestarter.” And at least two filmmakers could not translate the comic book goofiness of that bestselling book to the screen with the right enjoyable tone. But with “Hypnotic,” Rodriguez isn’t adapting a novel, comic book, video game, or an existing piece of intellectual property.
Trying something different in hopes of providing viewers with a familiar story poured into a new bottle is to be lauded. But “Hypnotic” can’t shake its televisual impulses and feature motion picture limitations. As Affleck’s Rourke is frustrated and confused, we, too, are lost. And instead of grounding the story, Rodriquez would rather take a quantum leap to another plot point with illogical imprecision.
I suppose keeping the viewer unsteady is the point, but the effect is unnerving, dismal, and unpleasant. An action-packed thriller working within these genre conventions should be fun, mildly thought-provoking entertainment. “Hypnotic” fails to provide thrills or mind-bending challenges that will hold audience attention. It’s certainly not hypnotic.