Don’t trust anything you see or hear in “Hypnotic,” a noggin-jogging thriller with more twists than Minnie’s tightly braided ponytail. Who’s Minnie? She’s the girl who goes missing in the movie’s opening scene when police detective dad Daniel Rourke (Ben Affleck) looks away for a second. Or does she? Depending how your mind works, there’s a chance Minnie doesn’t even exist. The perp was caught, but Minnie’s body was never found — which is a clue that this wasn’t a typical disappearance.
Your typical popcorn-munching multiplex patron would never suspect how deep this Russian-doll mystery goes. Better to strap in and go along for the ride in the latest example of creativity-within-constraints from resourceful writer-director Robert Rodriguez. Taking a page from “The Matrix,” “Limitless” and “Memento” — and whole chapters from sci-fi trickster Philip K. Dick — this slick mix of special effects and practical ingenuity puts Affleck in a fun position, and the slightly grizzled star’s still got the clench-jawed charisma to pull it off.
One minute, Rourke’s chasing a bank robber with the power to bend people’s brains, the next he’s on the run from the very same psychic. Keeping up is like working out in a gym where gravity keeps changing. Just when things start to get heavy, the floor drops out from under you.
This much is fairly constant for most of the film, which premiered at SXSW as a “work in progress”: Affleck plays a shallow film noir archetype, the damaged detective, leaning more on his chiseled cheekbones than on deep character work, which is just as well, since the only psychology audiences need from Rourke is (a) that he misses Minnie and (b) that he’s a pit bull on any case, willing to ignore orders and endanger himself for whatever cause he believes in. Rodriguez and co-writer Max Borenstein (who penned the last few “Godzilla” movies) make that clear in the first reel, as he watches an impossible bank robbery unfold from a surveillance van.
When things heat up, Rourke rushes in, retrieving a clue that reads “Find Lev Dellrayne” from a safety deposit box, and faster than you can say “Keyzer Söze,” the wild goose chase has begun. The mastermind of the robbery — and at least two others, also involving spectacular suicides by brainwashed bystanders — is played by “Prison Break” manhunter William Fichtner, a so-called hypnotic who possesses the ability to influence others. Pursuing him to the roof of a parking garage opposite the bank, Rourke watches this stranger whisper “You’ve got the wrong man” to his colleagues, and the next thing he knows, they’re turning their guns on him.
The less you know going in, the more fun the movie will be. Hypnotics wear scarlet red coats, while the film’s more subtly clad femme fatale is a psychic named Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who has special powers as well. Rourke’s right not to trust her at first, although Fichtner’s character — who might be this Dellrayne fellow — seems determined to kill her and Rourke, so sticking with her seems the better move for the time being. Fueled by a score from Rodriguez’s son Rebel, “Hypnotic” races along fast enough that audiences don’t have much time to dwell on the not-inconsiderable inconsistencies, though Rodriguez approaches the whole endeavor with a pure sense of filmmaking-as-play that won this critic over.
At a certain point, Rourke discovers (spoiler alert in this paragraph) that some of his experiences are “hypnotic constructs” — which means people aren’t who they appear to be, and entire situations that he (and we) have witnessed might have been no more than the power of suggestion. He might even be able to do these tricks as well, which puts “Hypnotic” in a very fun place (for most, and frustrating for others) where pretty much anything can happen. In some scenes, the horizon lifts and folds over on itself, à la “Inception.” In another, the camera cranes out to reveal that Rodriguez has repurposed a back alley from “Alita: Battle Angel,” and that everything’s a film set, though why that is and what it all means is best discovered on-screen.
The movie’s one-word title is a hat tip to Hitchcock, and the movie’s MacGuffin (that is, the thing everyone wants, while audiences amuse themselves with its pursuit) is an all-powerful hypnotic called “Domino.” The goal is first to find the puzzle pieces and then to assemble them into something resembling a coherent picture. While that plot engine is spinning overtime, Rodriguez returns to the matter of Minnie, whom Rourke never forgot about, and whose fate brings everything else into focus for a climactic surprise — namely, that for all the pyrotechnics and rug pulls, “Hypnotic” has mesmerized us into caring about these characters.
Rodriguez knows better than practically any filmmaker out there that movies are a form of hypnosis. It’s all sleight of hand, designed to make us care about a story and characters that don’t exist, so why not embrace that spirit in the execution? Most of the time, “Hypnotic” looks great (Rodriguez shared cinematography duties with Pablo Berron, who lit the atmospheric scissors scene), but occasionally, you can see the seams — which is fine, since it’s all a construct anyway. And just when you think the ride is over, along comes a last surprise in the credits, suggesting where a sequel might pick up.