Seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival
This year I had the distinct pleasure of going to the Sydney Underground Film Festival, not as press but purely for fun because I genuinely love a film festival that’s dedicated to the weirder side of cinema. This is the stuff that probably would never see a mainstream theatrical release unless we were having a particularly slow period of releases and cinemas got desperate. During this festival I saw 11 films over 3 days and so, between mainstream movie reviews, I’ll be dropping these for a while to share my views on films you might want to track down if you can find them… because dammit, I watched all of them, you’re damn right I’m getting the most that I possibly can out of the experience. Let’s start with the first film I saw at the festival, Tone-Deaf.
Olive (Amanda Crew) is your typical millennial in the big city. She’s sarcastic, quippy, has a bad boyfriend and a tech job with a bad boss who fires her for talking back after he makes lewd advances. With no job, boyfriend or other reason to stick around, Olive decides to just go off to the countryside to think about her life and unwind. She rents a house from a baby boomer named Harvey (Robert Patrick) who just lost his wife. While Olive is living in the rented house, she soon becomes this Baby Boomer’s prey because Harvey is sick of entitled elitist Millenials and has finally hit the point where he’s going to do something about it. That something, of course, being “Murder Olive… a lot”
Tone-Deaf plays more like a comedy than a horror film, choosing to use its setup to explore the differences in the generations. It also plays mostly for an audience of Millenials, made evident by its frequent use of fourth wall breaks where Harvey will turn to the camera to tell the audience off. It’s honestly kind of amusing when the main villain turns to the audience and tells them to drink bleach in his frustration over the perceived laziness of an entire generation. It’s certainly not afraid to play around with the audience watching, Harvey is as disdainful of the audience as he is of pretty much anyone under the age of 30 who he perceives as the main reason the country is going to hell. A lot of the jokes really do work as good jokes, getting uproarious laughter with every snarky line… but then they try to have a political message and fall flat on their face.
This movie is, not even subtly, about Republicans vs Democrats. In a modern world, anyone in the world can see the battle lines being drawn over in America between the two main political parties and this film doesn’t even try to pretend it isn’t about those. You know it’s about those because of the symbolism dreams that Harvey keeps having where he’s dressed all in red while being surrounded by people in Blue who engage in… uh, being women, or gay, or a baby. Their dream metaphors are kind of odd if I’m being honest, and not very specific. That’s kind of where the major issue comes in, the film is almost afraid to just make the film be about what we all know they’re hinting at. The terms “Republican” or “Democrat” don’t really appear, it’s generational, not political. The problem is that if you’re trying to make a point about a political divide between people, you kind of need to name the political powers causing the divide. To put it bluntly, they needed to make him a Trump supporter and push her into Antifa territory to give this film a serious bite, without it it’s just a toothless gumming at political commentary because they’re scared to rock the boat.
It also keeps losing track of what it’s meant to be doing. Harvey is meant to be angry at entitled Millenials like Olive, but his only victims can best be described as “Local country people”. If they’re trying to make a point about how hatred of the other only hurts people like you, they certainly don’t do it well enough for it to read on film. It just reads like Harvey got bored and went off to kill some randoms when he had a few more important things he should probably have been doing. Hell, if anything Harvey does more vile things to his elderly friend Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles) than he does to Olive, it just throws off the point they’re trying to make… if indeed they are even making a point, there are times when they just seem to forget that this is meant to be a political satire and just go for quirky comedy among the characters, which works but it’s not what the film is about.
I do appreciate that when this film wants to build up the tension, it does it well. It’s good with a horror setup and payoff, making Harvey a playfully evil killer who thinks things through. The final act of the film has some effective tension moments, including a brilliant bit with a staircase and some nails that’s almost like an iteration on the staircase scene in A Quiet Place. It manages to slip between these moments of effective horror and comedy easily, admittedly leaning more towards the comedy side but it can still have a few effective moments of shock and horror when it wants to.
Tone-Deaf might miss the mark as a good political satire, but it is still enjoyable. There’s a germ of a good idea here surrounded by some genuinely great comedic moments and a few effective bits of shock, but it just doesn’t stick the landing. It ends up being generic when the idea almost begs for specificity, which goes lacking here. This film needed to just call its shot and be about modern American politics. It’s not like this was going to be a mainstream release like The Hunt was (though can we all agree that The Hunt being pulled was kind of bullshit?), it could’ve been a clever exploration into what divides us by viewing it through a horror lens… but it’s not. It’s still fun if you’re into this genre of film, but it’s not as good a film as it easily could have been and that squandered potential is just depressing.