Robert Rodriguez & Ben Affleck Team For An ‘Inception’-Ish Nolan-Like Thriller [SXSW]

Mar 13, 2023

It’s funny to look back and remember that when they first broke out in the early 1990s, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were seen as not just contemporaries but equals, redefining genre cinema for the indie set and rewriting the rules to accommodate their singular styles. Tarantino continued to do that, but at some point, Rodriguez arguably never quite fulfilled his initial crackerjack potential or got lost in his own genre interests, retreating into his Austin bubble and cranking out mindless family entertainment, along with sequels and TV spin-offs of his early hits. 
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His new feature, “Hypnotic” (which premiered as a “work-in-progress” at SXSW, though it feels finished, unless the titles were temporary), stars Ben Affleck, who serves as something of a reminder that mojo can come and go. Affleck is Austin Police Detective Daniel Rourke, first seen in a therapy session; he’s haunted by the memory of his daughter’s abduction, a trauma seen in flashback that adroitly captures the sheer panic of your kid vanishing, even if you only look away for a second.
She’s still missing, and her disappearance has ended his marriage; is he really ready to go back to work? “I think it’s the only thing keeping me sane,” he growls. Affleck does a lot of growling in this one, coming off like a Gen-X Clint Eastwood, the hollow shell of a a tortured man (though he strips that gruffness away nicely in the closing scenes). Back on the job, he and his partner get a tip on a bank robbery, so they go to stake it out – and witness a bizarre three-ring circus of diversions and thefts. Rourke bluffs his way into the safety deposit boxes, which their tip has indicated is the target and discovers… a clue, seemingly left for him.
“Hypnotic” plays, early on, like a police procedural with a supernatural strain (something akin to the Denzel Washington thriller “Fallen” – remember that one?). Rourke tracks down the source of the clue, a storefront psychic named Diana Cruz (Alice Braga, in a nice little showcase role), who is given the considerable job of handling the script’s hefty exposition dumps. “Are you familiar with the concept of hypnotic constructs?” she asks, explaining that hypnotics are “people with the ability to influence the brain,” and constructs are the vivid illusions they can create for the ungifted, where “everything you see and do seems perfectly normal.” Hypnotics are trained by a mysterious government agency known only as “Division”; per that deposit box clue, they’re looking for Del Ray, “the most powerful hypnotic ever trained,” now hellbent on kicking off “Project Domino, Division’s holy grail.” 
If this all sounds like Rodriguez and co-writer Max Borenstein spent some quality time with a “Firestarter” paperback, you have no idea. And if this all sounds like mumbo-jumbo, it is; the picture veers awkwardly between such (sigh) world-building and cliche-ridden cop show dialogue. The style is similarly secondhand – cinematographer Pablo Berron’s attempts to make the Austin locations seem sleek and impressive end up giving it the look and feel of a “CSI” episode.
On the other hand, the picture does include a spotlight role for William Fichtner, an actor who can do more with a bemused smile than most of his contemporaries can do with reams of dialogue. He makes a terrific villain, menacing as hell without ever raising his voice (and fans of “Heat” will get a little kick out of his participation in a bank robbery sequence).
And credit where due to Rodriguez: he can still stage and cut an action beat with flair, here exemplified by a border town chase, shoot-out, and street fight that recalls the best moments of the Mariachi movies.
But Rodriguez’s intentions eventually become clear: he’s trying to make a Christopher Nolan movie, from the “Inception”-inspired reality bends to the “Memento”-esque Etch-a-Sketch narrative to the hard-driven, the hellbent protagonist of multiple Nolan pictures. There’s nothing inherently wrong with crafting a Nolan knock-off (he’s only so prolific). But the problem is that Nolan and his collaborators are ace screenwriters, and Rodriguez just isn’t, never has been, and could use some collaborators. “Hypnotic” features a well-crafted suspense sequence or two, a couple of clever twists – but also some wildly stupid ones, and a bone-headed over-explainer ending that treats the entire audience like dopes. This latest effort ultimately makes it more apparent than ever that the reason Rodriguez never really broke through to the A-list was because he never had the good sense to work with a better screenwriter than himself. [C]
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