The Hypnotist (***)

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Lasse Hallström’s The Hypnotist is a spine-tingling thriller that marks the famed director’s first Swedish production in over twenty years. A return to his home turf after a long absence, coupled with Hallström’s prestige in the eyes of The Academy™ (Cider House Rules, anyone?), is perhaps why the entire country put their full support behind a film that seems little more than Saturday afternoon escapism at the cineplex. The Hypnotist is Sweden’s official entry for next year’s “Best Foreign Language” Oscar®, but it stands little to no chance of winning the grand prize or even scoring a nomination. Heck, I wouldn’t be shocked to find it absent from the upcoming shortlist. Everything that The Academy™ will love about this film begins and ends with the “Hallström” name. If AMPAS didn’t go for David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo last awards season, this grisly thriller that’s cut from almost the exact same cloth (and from the same country, no less!) stands absolutely no shot at surfing the wave to Oscar® glory. To make matters worse, Hallström himself didn’t seem that fond of his film or its story, cutting it down at almost every turn when speaking about it during last week’s post-screening Q&A that I attended as part of The Wrap’s™ awards screening series. If the director isn’t even willing to say very nice things about his film or defend its merits…well, you might as well crumple up the paper and find the nearest trash bin. However, I find myself in a somewhat awkward predicament. As much as I know The Hypnotist doesn’t work for this awards season, I honestly believe that Hallström is selling his film short and not giving himself enough credit for making a relatively smooth transition into unknown territory — the tearjerker-free kind.

The gruesome and twisted nature of The Hypnotist might turn off fanboys of Stiegg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy, its narrative focus on the evils within the very recesses of family and domesticity eerily similar to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Vanger Dynasty plot. The Hypnotist — adapted from the book of the same name by Lars Kepler — begins with a family massacre that is elaborately planned by an unidentified killer. The first few scenes are Hallström’s way of dipping his feet into the thriller genre “pool.” The director of such sappy works like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Dear John has never once made a film that relies so heavily on violent imagery and horror-ific setups. I appreciate when a director challenges themselves by venturing into a different genre altogether and succeeding with it. In my screening, the audience was shaking in terror, cried out several times and sat transfixed by The Hypnotist’s intense plot. Based on such emotional responses, I’d go out on a limb and say that Hallström understands this movie category quite sufficiently. Sure, there are scenarios which are so obviously Hitchcock/Fincher-inspired (Psycho and Seven, most notably) that their blatant mimicry can sometimes prove irksome, but by and large Hallström never wavers in delivering continuous bouts of terror, intrigue and suspense.

The relatively unknown Tobias Zilliacus, a co-lead in The Hypnotist, has the potential to become an international action star.

A young chief inspector, Joona Linna (Tobias Zilliacus), passionately pursues the case, believing the murders to be far more personally-driven than his superiors at the station do. When one of the supposedly-dead family members is found alive, Joona brings in an ex-doctor and hypnosis specialist, Erik Maria Bark (Mikael Persbrandt), to communicate with this surviving member of the massacre in spite of their comatose status. You’ll have to forgive me for not revealing which member of the family the survivor is, but the less you know about the twist-ridden plot and its characters, the better. I love an enigmatic villain, and The Hypnotist’s mystery baddie — hidden to scary effect by a black-hooded rain jacket until well into the film — doesn’t disappoint. Stalking its prey and slowly unveiling the lunacy within, The Hypnotist’s “big bad” isn’t as definable as you’d imagine. What’s strong about Paolo Vacirca’s screenplay is that it gives us some visual clues to help us solve the narrative puzzle before its characters do, including the identity of the head evildoer, and yet never makes us feel as though we’re watching predictable events play out to an even more expected reveal. There’s many ways the story could have gone in The Hypnotist, but where it ends up sits rather comfortably in the mind of a moviegoer, I feel. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, you’ll have a great deal of fun tracing back the details you missed during a second or third viewing.

By far, however, The Hypnotist’s greatest contribution is resurrecting the acting career of Lena Olin, the real-life wife of director Lasse Hallström. Lena Olin — famous from Hallström’s Chocolat, J.J. Abram’s Alias and her Academy Award™-nominated role in Enemies, A Love Story — plays the wife of Dr. Erik Bark, Simone Bark. Where Joona Linna and Erik Bark seem like cardboard protagonists only there to rotate “heroic” responsibilities from scene to scene, Olin’s Simone is a multidimensional character whose only pitfall is the somewhat cliché “weepy mom” dialogue she’s anchored with. Unbeknownst to her family, Simone is having her own inner midlife crises. She’s unsure if her husband’s former fling with a hospital nurse is fully over, and she cannot seem to turn her son’s attention away from a round of Team Deathmatch on Call of Duty. When Simone’s entire domestic space becomes threatened following Erik’s involvement with the murder case, Lena Olin delivers a performance that’s truly among the best of the year. Olin channels the grieving mother, the untrustworthy wife, and the reluctant crime-fighter with such realistic accuracy. If only Lena had more to do in the beginning and end of The Hypnotist like she does in the middle of the film, we would definitely be hearing her name pop up within the blogosphere for a possible “Best Supporting Actress” citation.

Lena Olin makes a grand return and is just as amazing as you remembered!

In total, The Hypnotist is standard entertainment fare that thrills you in all the right ways so long as you aren’t an Oscar® voter. Trying to look for depth or meaning in this hard-boiled foreign thriller is an exercise in futility, and not the best usage of your movie-going time. Cinema enthusiasts who require films to have a message or heavy character back story/motivation will most likely hate The Hypnotist. For those, like me, who love being plunged into a suspenseful story, not knowing what is happening but having a grand time figuring out the entire scheme, will have a colossally entertaining and emotionally invigorating experience at the movies. The Hypnotist is not art in the highbrow sense, but Lasse Hallström’s foray into the thriller genre was a challenge he rose to and exceeded well beyond most people’s expectations. Although the title of the film and its hero Erik are largely disposable and somewhat irrelevant, Tobias Zilliacus, who plays Joona, has a future as an international action star and should be cast in more films of this ilk. The added bonus of an incredible Lena Olin performance is just one of the many unexpected holiday gifts you’ll hopefully be receiving at the movies. If David Fincher passes on The Girl Who Played With Fire or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lasse Hallström might just be the next best director for the remaining U.S. film versions of The Millennium Trilogy.