Hypnotic (2023) Review
Hypnotic was directed by Robert Rodriguez (Red 11, El Mariachi), written by Rodriguez and Max Borenstein (The Terror, Kong: Skull Island), and stars Ben Affleck (The Flash, Mallrats), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times, Soul), William Fichtner (Ultraviolet, Hot Summer Nights), Dayo Okeniyi (Emperor, Queenpins), Jeff Fahey (The Long Night, Maneater), JD Pardo (Mayans M.C., The Contractor), and Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, Criminal Activities). It follows a detective as he searches for his missing daughter and soon falls into a much vaster conspiracy.
The Plot: A couple of competent writers and a cool – if not entirely creative idea can make a solid story for a genre film. Rodriguez and Borenstein have a good plot at Hypnotic’s core, but they don’t know when to quit. With the director’s usual disregard for plot, it’s a surprise that there’s too much with little to show for so many words.
Discussion and therapeutics haven’t helped much for Austin detective Rourke (Affleck), as his daughter who went missing is still out there while he has nothing to show for it. Duty still calls though, so Rourke and his partner Nicks (Pardo) stake out the next target in a chain of bank robberies orchestrated by Dellrayne (Fichtner) via mind control. It’s an interesting idea that sets up a way for Rourke to find his daughter, whose photo he finds in a safe deposit box, to spiral downward with Diana (Braga), a fortune teller who tells the detective that she and Dellrayne are both part of a government group called “Division”.
People under Dellrayne’s control aren’t stopping until Rourke is dead, so he and Diana flee to Mexico to meet Jeremiah (Haley) who exposits more about the destination of Hypnotic. Working through the rules of the world is far less engaging than the world itself; while the ideas of “constructs” (artificial realities that “hypnotics” like Dellrayne can project) are able to split the film into subplots surrounding an investigation which the protagonists meet people knowledgeable about “Division” like River (Okeniyi) and Carl (Fahey), another where the main characters trace their quarry, and more, the script doesn’t stop adding new ideas and explaining them.
“Domino” is the endgame, but Hypnotic’s own script keeps throwing in subplots, diversions, and a small handful of fights to such a degree that this goal feels insignificant.
The Characters: Efforts by the scribes strive to keep the characters believable in the face of outlandish ideas, but the result that they arrive at is one of indifference. Backstories and past deeds are provided, but not the personality to lift them above mediocrity.
Rourke is a purely serviceable leading man. His haunted, dime a dozen backstory of a strained personal life, divorced wife, and loner attitude aren’t given any special gravitas or emotion. This isn’t helped by Affleck’s middling performance and obvious boredom and/or regret with the role. Not even the reveal that he can block constructs changes the perception (pun if you want it) of the grizzled cop. Rourke’s work is all that’s left of him as a person and as a character.
Diana, even while being a hypnotic herself, isn’t given much to do throughout the feature aside from laying out the history and purpose of the movie’s mechanics and guide Rourke to his destination. Hypnotic, being the feature that it is, finds a way to expand the truth of Diana’s connection to the man she’s paired with, but because of its premise, the reality is shorted in favour of surprises.
Dellrayne is the most interesting one of the bunch, due in no small part to the reserved menace in Fichtner’s performance. He’s the most powerful of the hypnotics and clearly knows it but doesn’t relish in that fact. The backstory for his intentions comes later on, but his apparent assuredness and cold steel exterior make enough of an impression to last until the script gets to it. He, and a few side characters, are engaging, but Hypnotic is stuck so firmly in formula that even they aren’t all that memorable in the end.
The Mystery: Parts of the writers’ shroud work well, but the movie itself simultaneously lets on more and less than it needs to. However, there does come a point where Rodriguez starts to create a new rabbit hole, one that the protagonists don’t know all about, that alleviates prior issues.
A talky beginning ruins a lot of the sense of discovery that should permeate Hypnotic, as the film’s resident fortune teller rapidly explains that Division was created to advance American interests in foreign spaces, only to lose control of its operators in the process, and how exactly the special abilities work. Manipulating the characters’ – and by extension, the audience’s – beliefs about something like the allegiances of the extras who are entranced would’ve elevated the overall effect, but with exposition comes a douse of certainty. Minor facets like the way reality warps are worthy inclusions, but the writers too often go overboard in the details.
What gets old fast is the “is this real?” question that soon dominates the proceedings. Constructs are cool and all, but Rodriguez and Borenstein get too carried away with showcasing them, having nearly every side character morph into Dellrayne. By the time the tenth instance of this occurs, the ability can only be seen as a gimmick instead of an integral component of the movie’s world.
Even though he’s the best of the best, Dellrayne has his own trail to follow, which is not only the most satisfying and retroactively logical part of Hypnotic but also an appealing way to humanize the character. Domino is a tool with the same powers, just exponentially more potent, and it has affected the antagonist. The path back to Domino is littered with self-made clues, which Rourke and Diana are now interfering in, making the mystery a competition as well. Certain choices are justified with this approach and illuminate the movie in a far better way than the journey of the protagonists does; a mesmerizing realization.
The Technics: Diversity of output can do a filmmaker good, but Rodriguez doesn’t get much benefit from his choices. The movie is polished and inarguably competent on a technical scale, but it’s the director’s choices that drain the spark.
Solstice Studios, one of the major production companies behind Hypnotic, went bankrupt during the post-production process, presumably altering the amount of time allotted to finish it. For all of the narrative and character faults, this doesn’t reflect negatively on the film’s presentation often. Influences are clear in the cinematography by Rodriguez and Pablo Berron (Generosity, Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles), but their work is solid on its own, with plenty of noir lighting, smoky settings, and interesting tracking shots. Surprisingly, the world-bending CGI isn’t bad at all, and the destruction during the film’s few setpieces is solid too. Whatever money was lost doesn’t show in this department.
More physical pieces of the production didn’t fare as well, with the helmer’s trademark scrappiness largely absent, instead replaced with an overly dour mood and colour palette sapped of everything other than brown and grey. It’s a groggy movie, which isn’t helped by the pacing, which is often halted for exposition when a more propulsive approach seems more logical.
Next to no one appears to have wanted to be in Hypnotic, which is understandable given the mediocrity of it all. It can be entertaining in fits and starts, but it never spellbinds as it promises.