Skip to main content

Movie Pet Peeves: Hypnosis

Movie hypnotism is bullshit.

I'm not even talking about it from a skeptical point of view.  Let's ignore the fact that hypnotism cannot control people's minds or make them do things against their will.  Let's also ignore the fact that hypnotism may or may not even "work" and is kind of on par with other bullshitty phenomena like speaking to the dead.  And let's especially ignore the fact that hypnotism cannot unlock "hidden" memories and that any discovery of memory by way of hypnotism is almost certainly the result of the hypnotist leading their patient victim by way of manipulative suggestion.

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I accepted hypnotism as a real thing and it was universally understood to be a miraculous, magical procedure that could routinely be practiced by professionals everywhere.  I would still hate seeing it in movies.

Why?  Because it's such a lazy plot device.  It's a crutch to get away with shitty writing.

You're feeling incompetent... very incompetent....
Let's look at a good example from a movie I actually liked: Jack's Back.  The setup is that the hero needs information on who killed his brother.  If the writer wanted to make the story interesting and suspenseful, then this could spring off into any number of fascinating scenes where the hero has to use his wits and street skills to investigate the crime.  So how does he get his first lead?  Somebody hypnotizes him and he sees the killer's face in an unconscious memory.

Boom.  Next scene.

Does anyone else feel bored by that?  It's pretty much just like inserting a title card that says, "Then some magic happened," and moving on with the movie.

Jack's Back isn't the only good movie that does this.  Office Space, Insidious, and to a lesser extent, Trance are all thoroughly entertaining and well made movies that have at least one scene where the movie hits a wall and can't continue until somebody invokes the miracle of hypnosis.

"Hmm... I'm stuck on my office comedy.  I've got ninety minutes of office hijinks and I've got a good ten minute intro about an apathetic worker, but there's nothing connecting the two. What should I do?"

"Dunno.  Maybe he goes to a hypnotist who makes him feel relaxed?"

"I guess, but what does that have to do with being motivated in the workplace or self actualization or literally anything else in the movie?"

"Hey, man.  Hypnotists can do anything."

"Right, but I think you're missing my point.  It's a movie about a guy who doesn't like his job.  Just because he gets hypnotized doesn't -"



Once the movie gets over the hypnosis hurdle, it usually settles into a fine groove and ends up being decent.  But that one scene will always stick out like a broken fencepost.  If the rest of the movie is so imaginative or suspenseful or well told, then why is this one thing in it so broken and stupid?

Stir of Echoes is a solid supernatural thriller about a ghost seeking vengeance.  The protagonist could come into contact with the ghost in any number of ways that would be interesting or tie in to the ghost angle - like maybe he trips down the stairs and has a near death experience, and ever since then he has been keeping just the tiniest connection to the afterlife.  No?  You just want him to get hypnotized at the beginning of the movie and then pretty much never talk about that again?  Fine....

The Butterfly Effect is a deeply flawed film, but it's at least interesting and fast-paced.  We're going to have all these crazy time travel misadventures with alternate realities and unexpected consequences to our actions, right?  What's that?  You want me to wait for five more minutes while you dick around with some arbitrary throwaway hypnosis scene that actually somehow manages to be the least meaningful moment of a movie filled with meaningless influence?  Fine....

You know what?  I'm going to go watch Oldboy.  Nothing satisfies like a twisted and bizarre revenge story when you're feeling dark and broody.  I can't wait to see how Woo-jin managed to set up this crazy revenge scheme for Dae-su.  He thought of every possible outcome and constructed this elaborate plot.  You'd have to be some kind of insane genius to think it all through.  The only thing is, I'm not sure how Woo-jin could count on getting Dae-su to hook up with Mi-do.  Seems like a chance interaction that you couldn't possibly control.  But Woo-jin's a smart guy.  Maybe she's actually been working for him all along, or maybe he drugged her, or maybe Mi-do is actually a robot, or... oh, hypnosis?  He hypnotized her to fall in love?  Wait, he hypnotized both of them to fall in love?  Jesus Christ.  Whatever, asshole.

Are there any movies where hypnosis actually seems appropriate?

Ironically, the only one I can think of that gets a pass from me is the worst one out of all the movies I've named so far: Shallow Hal.  It treats hypnosis exactly like a magic spell and then abides by its rules for the rest of the runtime.  It's still bullshit, but at least the movie is aware that it's bullshit and follows through.

Basically, I have a simple rule about plot devices.  If the instigating moment in your movie could be swapped out with a scene where the main character eats an enchanted fortune cookie given to him by a sparkly Chinese stereotype and the rest of your movie is unaffected, then it's a shitty plot device.  Try harder.