Ben Affleck Battles His Own Mind

May 10, 2023

There is a film that Robert Rodriguez’s Hypnotic feels like it is riffing on so explicitly that it becomes almost hilarious the more it goes on. To say what that specific film is would mean toeing too close to spoiler territory as its title is a term for what is being attempted here in reverse. Let’s just say that if you have seen this acclaimed science fiction film even once, it is one that will likely loom large over the concluding act of Hypnotic. The trouble with this is that Rodriguez isn’t able to rise above the comparison despite some admirable attempts. The film has fun dancing around in its shadow, but can’t fully emerge into a light of its own. However, while there is not quite the same creativity to both its visual presentation and thematic reflections, it manages to be just cheeky enough in its reversals to draw you in. When paired with committed performances by sad dad Ben Affleck and his intrepid guide in Alice Braga, it works as a sturdy psychological thriller that is at its best when it really begins to cut loose.

The plot centers on the troubled detective Danny Rourke (Affleck) who we first meet when he is talking to a therapist. Though he seems distracted, he recounts how his daughter Minnie (Ionie Olivia Nieves) was kidnapped and has still not been found. Interrupting this, he is told by his partner Nicks (JD Pardo) they have gotten a tip about a bank robbery that will happen today. We are subsequently whisked away to a surveillance operation that focuses on a mysterious man on a bench. Played by character actor William Fichtner who, while underutilized, still brings a great degree of menace, this man has the ability to hypnotize anyone with ease. It is basically a superpower where he can make you do anything from assisting him in the robbery that plays out or shooting your friend you were talking with just a minute ago. The only person who seems to be immune to this influence is Danny, but he can’t stop the man from escaping. More than a little suspicious about what just happened, he soon meets Diana Cruz (Braga) who informs him there is an entire secret organization of hypnotists influencing the world at large. Desperate to find out the truth and how it may connect to his daughter, Danny goes with her on an initially standard journey in search of answers.

Image via Ketchup Entertainment

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There is a persistent narrative conundrum the film falls into when it comes to the derivative nature of much of its beginning. On the one hand, the manner in which it goes through the motions of in-between scenes from a diner confrontation to a chase on train tracks feels played out. On the other, this is all by design as the narrative itself is meant to be questioned the longer it goes on. Some of this is because of its more standard conspiratorial underpinnings, but there is also a moment where it all gets turned on its head. Whether you are willing to make this leap with it will depend on whether you were getting wrapped up in the action that preceded it. Said buildup is Rodriguez showing he still can direct action well with plenty of tense sequences that are injected with an unpredictability stemming from the film’s hypnotic hook. While some of the trickery is obvious, it still shines when all the layers to the deception are revealed. There is one motorcycle chase sequence where the entire landscape gets flipped on itself, like that aforementioned film which will not be named here, which proves to be a standout visually even if it is an empty spectacle in retrospect. This is largely forgivable as it becomes more of a gag when the film lays all its cards on the overturned table.

More effective than this is when the film pulls the rug out from under you in quieter conversational scenes. Affleck and Braga, while not given a lot to work with for much of the film, ensure this lands. With a film like this, anything short of complete sincerity could make it fall apart. Even when Braga gets burdened with some of the many more clunky exposition scenes, she manages to make them into something more engaging. When the film then shifts into the final act, all of what we had come to know about the characters gets challenged. Not only do Affleck and Braga make the appropriate shift without overplaying it, they end up giving it more of an emotional punch than one could have ever expected. While it would have actually benefited from showing a bit more guts in embracing ambiguity rather than spelling everything out to the point of being ridiculous, this doesn’t undercut its closing moments too much.

Image via Ketchup Entertainment

When all the pieces come together, it is a work that proves to be one of the more well-rounded experiences from Rodriguez in quite some time. Even its conventions that don’t carry as much weight as its conclusion serve a purpose when looked back on. There is plenty of forced dialogue that feels like it could have been ripped from any number of action thrillers, but that gives way to its stronger elements just enough to make you forget about these missteps. Much like the perils facing the characters themselves, the impact of the film hinges upon whether you believe in what it is you are seeing even when it could all be just another ruse. Even when they aren’t the most inventive of tricks, the blunt outer shell soon cracks open to reveal something rather sweet at its core. While the illusions on top of illusions that Hypnotic piles up don’t always fit together into a compelling whole, it all manages to arrive at an appropriately cathartic conclusion that tosses everything out the window just as it hits home.

Rating: B

Hypnotic comes to theaters on May 12.

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