On its surface, Tone-Deaf sounds like a movie you’ve seen before. Stung by heartbreak and job loss, a young woman takes a weekend away at a country house to regroup. But her attempt at quiet reflection is disturbed by a malevolent presence in the house. In this case, it’s a cantankerous old man with an ax to grind and a thirst for blood. Bonus: that homicidal creeper is played by Robert Patrick, who scared us into puddles of ooze in Terminator 2: Judgment Day! But this movie tries to do more than scare you silly. It tries to get silly, not only working in humor but also a political edge as subtle as a chainsaw. Tone-Deaf turns the culture war between Baby Boomers and Millenials into a violent game of cat-and-mouse. And the results are a mess.
Tone-Deaf begins by establishing the tragic backstory of Olive (Amanda Crew), who was performing at a piano recital when her dad committed suicide. Cut to grown Olive who is ruthlessly snarky whether talking shit to her boss or breaking up with her cheating boyfriend. But at least she’s got cool gal pals, the kind who refer to Tindr dates as “someone I’m really looking forward to giving herpes,” and offer life advice like, “Consider this your Eat, Pray, Love moment, minus you being a selfish cunt.” Encouraged to take some me-time, Olive rents a country house for the weekend, then packs up her #hustle coffee mug and “The Struggle is Real” t-shirt for a relaxing break from her “coastal elite” existence. But Olive’s no fool. When she’s messaging with the homeowner, Harvey (Patrick), she lies, saying she won’t be alone, but with a fiance. Unfortunately for her, Harvey can internet too. So he googles her. Finding a pic where she holds a protest sign that reads, “This pussy grabs back,” he decides she will be the target for his Millenial-aimed wrath.
Olive has no idea what’s in store for her, but we do, because Harvey offers up a series of monologues direct to camera about his hatred for Millenials. He denounces “brunching bimbos with your Skinny Girl margaritas” and their “fedora-clad boyfriends.” He laments, “I did my part to stimulate the economy and I get less praise than a Youtube video.” He demands, “Get off your climate change high horse for a second and do something about overpopulation,” like “Drink bleach.” It’s basically a string of tired complaints that seem plucked from “old man yells at cloud” memes or Fox News comments sections. And I guess that’s meant to be funny? Mostly it plays as tiresome, because these riffs feel so familiar and because it gives voice to the toxic male entitlement that has led to an astonishing spree of real-life mass shootings. Instead of exploring or criticizing such misogynistic/terroristic underpinnings, Tone-Deaf stops short, delighting only in the supposed outrageousness of it all. But the satire is far from scathing when it doesn’t push beyond the insults and real-life violence we see every day.
Olive’s characterization is equally annoying. She swaddles herself in hipster swag, side-eyes everything, and when under attack by a tomahawk-wielding Harvey takes a moment to call him out on “textbook cultural appropriation.” It’s a face-off where both sides are awful and no one wins. And for as much as Tone-Deaf gleefully uses political buzz words in a lazy attempt to provoke shock and laughs, it doesn’t really have anything to say. It’s not funny. It’s not provocative. But is it at least scary? No.
Part of the problem with making Harvey a caricature of Baby Boomer rage is that it castrates the threat of him. He lumbers along in long johns spit-singing “This Land Is Your Land,” and he’s ludicrous, not intimidating. He knows the house like the back of his hand. And Olive’s self-centeredness makes her comically oblivious to his presence, allowing him to set up a few terrible snares. But Bates’ direction fails to make the most of his setups, offering coverage that is more confusing than terrifying. For instance, Harvey places planks of wood with long, protruding nails on the stairs as a trap. But the tension of this scene is spoiled by a poor camera angle that distorts the depth of field. It looks like Olive is stepping on the nail, but her lack of reaction clues us in that she hasn’t. A Quiet Place gave a masterful turn of this gruesome gag just last year as SXSW’s opening night film. Here it feels woefully blundered as the actual puncture happens so abruptly that there’s no tension or sense of payoff.
Tone-Deaf aims to blend edgy humor with striking scares but fails at both, lacking the needed nuance of political satire and the layers of tension demanded of horror. So, in the end, its cheeky title is an embarrassing self-own.
Tone-Deaf makes its world premiere at SXSW.