Robert Rodriguez' new mind-bender "Hypnotic" screened as this year's SXSW Film Festival as a "work in progress." Now just two months later it's getting the full theater treatment. I'm not sure what has been added, subtracted, or fine-tuned since its recent premiere. But the theater release we get is a twist-filled, deceptively deep, and wildly entertaining genre film that constantly exceeded expectations.
"Hypnotic" is a Robert Rodriguez movie through-and-through, not so much in terms of style and flourish (although we do get some of that), but in a more literal sense. Rodriguez directs, produces, conceived the story, and wrote the script along with Max Borenstein. Rodriguez also edited the movie and shares co-cinematographer credit with Pablo Berron. His fingerprints are all over the film.
Rodriguez came onto the scene in the early 1990s alongside Quentin Tarantino. And while the latter has turned into one of the most heralded and talked-about filmmakers of our time, Rodriguez has often flown a little closer to the ground -- under the radar to some but sticking close and staying true to his renegade style of genre filmmaking. The results certainly vary, but I've always loved his faithfulness to his interests and his belief in cinema as entertainment first and foremost.
All of that comes through in "Hypnotic," a movie that features more cinematic sleight of hand than anything Rodriguez has attempted before. Early on it'll have you questioning some of his choices, picking apart some of his execution, and wondering if he has gotten in over his head. But then when you're least expecting it, Rodriguez hits us with an assembly line of revelations and suddenly everything starts coming together. And I for one ate it up.
A somber and wounded Ben Affleck is a near perfect fit as Danny Rourke, an Austin, Texas police detective tortured by memories of the day his daughter Minnie was abducted while the two of them enjoyed an afternoon at the park. That was seven years ago. An unstable 18-year-old named Lyle Terry was charged for the abduction but was ruled innocent by reason of insanity. Minnie's body was never found and Lyle has maintained he has no memory of committing the crime or disposing of her body. Danny clings to a sliver of hope that his daughter may still be alive.
In the opening few minutes you'll swear you're in for a by-the-book police procedural. After the cops get tipped off about a possible bank heist, Danny and his partner Nicks (JD Pardo) are sent to stake out the place. But things take a trippy turn when a mysterious man (William Fichtner) appears and begins controlling people with nothing more than his words. Chaos ensues, people are killed, the mystery man escapes, and Danny discovers a clue that seems to have been left specifically for him.
Later Danny tracks the anonymous tip to a dime-store psychic named Diana Cruz (Alice Braga). She clearly knows more than she's willing to tell and Danny is immediately suspicious. But after the mystery man shows up and attempts to kill them both, they begin to open up. Diana reveals the man's name is Dellrayne and he's what's called a hypnotic. What's a hypnotic you ask? "They're people with an ability to actually influence the brain over a psychic bandwidth," she explains. Clear as mud.
We get several more amusing attempts at explaining such as "Telepaths just read the mind. Hypnotics reshape its reality." At first Danny doesn't buy it and brandishes the same amount of skepticism we do. But then Diana puts on a little display and changes his mind. Yep, she too is a hypnotic although not nearly as powerful as Dellrayne.
I don't dare reveal any more because what makes the movie so entertaining is watching all the pieces come together. Again, much of what you see early on will undoubtedly have you questioning the story and pointing out holes in its logic. But once Rodriguez starts peeling back the layers things start to click into place and suddenly most of our questions have answers.
The cast is top-to-bottom strong with Affleck wonderfully selling us a dogged father who is both burdened and driven by his pain. He's a little dry in spots, but it makes sense why. I love seeing Braga getting a well-deserved meaty role. And then there's William Fichtner, one of today's best character actors who has shined in films like "Black Hawk Down," "The Dark Knight" and "Heat." Here he brings a quiet menace to the film's devilishly fun antagonist. Terrific faces like Jackie Earle Haley and Jeff Fahey are icing on the cake.
Clocking in at a brisk and compact 92 minutes, the sleekly made and surprisingly inventive "Hypnotic" resembles an "Inception" inspired thriller made with a dash of Alfred Hitchcock and a full helping of Robert Rodriguez. It makes for a tasty dish, especially for fans of genre filmmaking. By the way, stay for the cool mid-credits scene which teases a possible sequel if this one manages to find an audience. Hopefully it does because I'd love to pay another visit to Rodriguez' delightfully idiosyncratic world.
87 Cast: Ben Affleck, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeff Fahey, J.D. Pardo
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes