Find someone who looks at you the way Ben Affleck looks at genres that peaked in the ‘90s. His ongoing quest to save the middlebrow movie has seen him try his hand at everything from big budget sports dramas to old school erotic thrillers in recent years as he tries to prove that entertaining adults is still a noble goal.
His latest role, which finds him starring in in Robert Rodriguez’s “Hypnotic,” is a similar throwback to the kind of nonsensically complex, star-driven thrillers that could be instantly forgotten before enjoying a long DVD shelf life in 2002. If TBS launched its own airline and started producing original films designed to be viewed on two hour commuter flights, this would be an ideal first project.
The elevator pitch for “Hypnotic” may well have been, “Take ‘Inception,’ strip it of any serious artistry and nuance, cram as many twists as humanly possible into 90 minutes, and make it fucking rule.” It feels like an utterly ridiculous film before you hit the multitude of twists that blow up its already-shaky premise a dozen times over. But at a certain point, the film’s commitment to its own asininity becomes so overpowering that even the most cynical viewers will have no choice but to suspend their disbelief and be sucked into its magic.
Danny Rourke (Affleck) is a very sad cop. He hasn’t been himself since the day his daughter Minnie (Hala Finley) was kidnapped at a park in Austin, and he spends his days being tortured by his inability to find the bastard who did it. The only thing keeping him sane is solving the occasional crime.
When the department gets an anonymous tip about a bank robbery that’s about to go down, Danny smoothly intercepts coded messages and figures out that four goons are attempting to steal a safety deposit box. He gets to the box before they do and finds that it contains a picture of his daughter with the words “Find Lev Dellrayne” written on it.
We soon learn that Lev Dellrayne (William Fichtner) is the world’s greatest hypnotic. As the name suggests, hypnotics are mental savants who can control other people’s minds and get them to do virtually anything by altering their perceptions of reality. Dellrayne has recently escaped from a top secret prison designed to house dangerous hypnotics, and his ability to perform mental gymnastics on all but the most powerful minds makes him virtually unstoppable. Danny becomes convinced that Dellrayne orchestrated his daughter’s kidnapping, and his determination to steal the photo of her makes him think that she’s still alive somewhere.
He teams up with local tarot card reader and fellow hypnotic Diana Cruz (Alice Braga) to track down Dellrayne by working with a series of underground hackers and spies that comprise the hypnotic community. But nothing is ever as it seems, as Dellrayne is constantly fucking with their heads by making them believe they’re in different places than they actually are. Things keep getting more and more meta as they try to peel back the layers of deception and figure out why the hypnotics are so obsessed with Danny’s daughter.
Rodriguez has always done his best work outside the confines of the studio system, and this independently-financed project is the kind of messy work of genius that you get when you let great artists cook. But as charming as Rodriguez’s script might be, his real stroke of genius was casting the only actor on the planet who could make this movie work. “Hypnotic” was simply destined to be a Ben Affleck movie.
The role of Danny allows Affleck to show off all his signature moves — zoning out in a cloud of sadness while still looking insanely handsome, telling his subordinates to stop telling dumb jokes with one stern look, and ultimately pulling himself off the mat and getting his act together when he realizes that there’s more to life than just brooding.
This canny casting also works because Affleck’s chaotic career trajectory has given him an unprecedented ability to split the difference between highbrow and lowbrow entertainment. To avoid being dismissed as direct-to-VOD trash, “Hypnotic” needed a legitimate A-lister with unimpeachable movie star gravitas to lead it. But watching Brad Pitt talking about a hacker’s homemade Mountain Dew recipe would just be stupid. Danny Rourke is a role that needed to be played by a man who made “Argo” and went viral for his sad Dunkin’ Donuts runs. Affleck’s ability to simultaneously occupy the roles of lauded auteur and cultural rodeo clown made him the ideal man for the job.
It’s hard to imagine a throwback like “Hypnotic” making much of a cultural impact during its theatrical run — but how many of these movies ever did? Its real moment in the sun will come ten years from now, when some film student is perusing the $2 DVD section of his local record store. “Hypnotic” probably won’t even be in there, but another sweaty customer will tap him on the shoulder and say that he’s selling a bunch of other DVDs for $1 in the parking lot. They’ll walk outside, the kid will trade a mostly-used Subway gift card for the man’s copy of “Hypnotic,” and he’ll have the time of his goddamn life watching it.
Ketchup Entertainment will release “Hypnotic” in theaters on Friday, May 12.