Hypnotic review: Ben Affleck’s twisty thriller is baby Inception

Daisy Phillipson
Ben Affleck as Danny Rourke in Hypnotic

Hypnotic, a twisty new thriller from Robert Rodriguez, certainly sounds intriguing. But an overstuffed plot and an emotionless performance from Ben Affleck makes it a far cry from the auteur’s best work.

Robert Rodriguez is known as the maverick of filmmaking, ever since he handed his body over to medical experiments in order to fund his feature-length debut, El Mariachi. Though he’s certainly branched out into new territory from his indie-on-a-shoestring-budget days, with the likes of Alita: Battle Angel and The Book of Boba Fett under his belt, his reputation as an auteur has never wavered. Rodriguez does things his own way, (mostly) outside of the constraints of the Hollywood system, utilizing each new project as a cinematic experiment of sorts. 

The earlier work within the Rodriguez Cinematic Universe(™), notably the Mexico Trilogy, secured his spot as one of the most influential indie filmmakers of the time. His ultra-violent, pulpy b-movie visions drew interest from fellow maverick Quentin Tarantino and vice-versa, sparking collaborations aplenty. But under the RCU banner, he also gained notoriety for his candied kids’ films, ones that lean into their bonkers plots and even more bonkers special effects. Though Rodriguez has never been one to shy away from new genres, he’s a brand in his own right, having redefined the rules of filmmaking and paved the way of cinematic ingenuity and rebellion. 

But whatever your thoughts are about Rodriguez’s oeuvre, it might be best to leave them at the door for Hypnotic. Having teamed up with Godzilla scribe Max Borenstein for the script, the director promised a “Hitchcock thriller on steroids,” although this is far cry from what is actually delivered. Sure, there’s the one-word name, one that evokes intrigue and mystique. But the movie feels more like the spiritual baby brother to the likes of Tenet and Inception, with more twists than you can shake a stick at. 

Hypnotic’s biggest mind game is on itself

Though Hypnotic feels muddled, it’s built from a creative premise. The setting takes us to Rodriguez’s stomping ground of Austin, centering on detective Danny Rourke, played by a moody Ben Affleck, as he is sent free falling into a world of mysticism and mind games. Danny is driven by the loss of his daughter, believing elusive specter Dellrayne (William Fichtner) may be the key unlocking her disappearance. 

Along the way, Affleck’s aggy agent seeks the help of Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), another highly gifted psychic who joins Danny on his quest to simultaneously hunt down and escape the most powerful hypnotic in the world. And when we say hypnotic, don’t expect comfy chaise longues and swinging watches. In Rodriguez’s universe, these mind wrestlers are part of an organization capable of influencing a person’s every move with a simple death stare. 

But even these plot details aren’t close to the crux of the story. Hypnotic is filled with so many twists and turns, no one can be trusted – not even yourself. The film makes this obvious from the outset, kicking off with an opening scene in which we see Danny reliving the day he lost his daughter as his therapist ominously taps her pen on a notepad, reminiscent of Get Out’s malevolent teaspoon trick. Is she really helping him to deal with the trauma of losing his only child? As the film progresses, you’re left wondering whether the daughter even exists at all. 

But any questions you might have in one moment will swiftly be replaced with new ones at the drop of a hat – and this is where some may criticize Hypnotic. The film’s biggest mind game is on itself; it’s so over-ambitious, it comes off as convoluted. In its defense, Hypnotic has an incredibly short runtime for what it’s trying to do. Rodriguez has developed an intricate and complex concept, yet one that’s been squeezed into a 90-minute timeframe. As always, he’s gone against the Hollywood grain and avoided turning Hypnotic into a three-hour affair, but perhaps it could have done with more time to allow the story to breathe.

More Rodriguez, less Affleck

All that being said, Hypnotic is certainly entertaining, bolstered by solid performances from Braga and Fichtner, both of whom commit to their roles with conviction. Affleck, unfortunately, is a different story. Between directing Air and starring in The Flash, the Hollywood heavyweight’s got a lot on his plate and it shows. Though he’s perhaps trying to depict a noir-esque figure, Affleck grunts his way through Hypnotic, delivering lines that are so void of emotion, they’re bordering on comedic. It’s almost like watching his “smoking through the pain of existence” meme in real-time. 

Ultimately, Hypnotic is best when it’s having fun, which we see flickers of throughout. Without giving too much away, a refreshing aside arrives with Dayo Okeniyi’s River, a character whose anti-surveillance techniques are reminiscent of Chris Morris’ Four Lions. And though it doesn’t feel much like a Rodriguez movie, there are several RCU nods peppered throughout. Don’t expect any gun-filled guitar cases, but there are some great shoot-out scenes, elevated by a score from his son Rebel, as well as displays of CGI trickery.

Hypnotic is far from Rodriguez’s best work, but a mid-credits scene suggests there could be a sequel – whether audiences want it or not. Then again, it could just be a way for Hypnotic to squeeze in one last mind trick. 

Hypnotic review score: 3/5

Hypnotic certainly has its strong points, with a unique concept and solid performances from Braga and Fitchner. But the plot is so convoluted that at times you might wish you’d brought a notepad to the theater. Rodriguez is best when he’s being Rodriguez, and unfortunately Hypnotic felt like it was trying hard to be like so many movies that have been done well in the past. And the less said about Affleck, the better. 

Criticisms aside, Hypnotic is entertaining – it’s almost impossible to be bored with the pace it’s running at. Though it won’t rise the ranks as one of the auteur’s greatest works, it’s worth a watch, if only for the experience. You’ll be left feeling anything but sleepy…

Hypnotic drops in US cinemas on May 12, 2023, and in UK cinemas on May 26, 2023. In the meantime, check out our other TV and movie hubs below:

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