Writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. has had a roller coaster of a film career. After bursting on to the scene in 2012 with the exceptional Excision, he followed it up in 2014 with the less-than-stellar Suburban Gothic. He then redeemed himself with 2016’s Trash Fire, and returns this year with Tone-Deaf, a film that is as inconsistent as his career. Tone-Deaf meanders along aimlessly over the course of its sluggish 86 minutes before leading into a bland showdown between its two lead characters. It’s a disappointment, to say the least, especially when you know that Bates is capable of so much more.
After losing her job and imploding her latest dysfunctional relationship, millennial Olive (Amanda Crew, Final Destination 3, The Haunting in Connecticut) leaves the city for a weekend of peace in the country, only to discover the shockingly dark underbelly of rural America. She rents an eccentric, ornate country house from Harvey, (Robert Patrick, Terminator 2, The Faculty) an old-fashioned widower who’s struggling to hide his psychopathic tendencies. Soon two generations collide in this home invasion horror film that attempts to critique the bizarre cultural and political climate that currently exists.
On paper, Tone-Deaf sounds like a slam dunk. This material is rife with potential for satire, but the film just isn’t clever, funny or scary (it’s not altogether clear which of the three Bates was going for). Millennials are an easy target, but Tone-Deaf goes for the most obvious jokes you can think of when it comes to riffing on that particular age group (brunch, addiction to cell phones, etc.). The same goes for Patrick’s old coot Harvey, who is essentially a psychopathic version of Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino. Often breaking the fourth wall to lecture viewers on the overall worthlessness of young’uns today, Harvey spends most of the film following Olive around his house (and around town during her one journey to a local bar). Much like Olive, he is a broad caricature. The attempts at social commentary are just so on the nose. Tone-Deaf is filled to the brim with surface-level criticisms of Millennials and Baby Boomers, be it from Harvey’s breaking of the fourth wall or Olive’s selfish behavior, and while it may induce a few laughs, most of it just doesn’t work. You’re welcome to take this criticism with a grain of salt, as all humor is subjective.
Tone-Deaf also drops the ball from a structural standpoint. The film devotes its first act to Olive’s downfall and eventual decision to stay at Harvey’s house, but most of the second act is spent watching her sit around the house, eating penis-shaped pasta and, in one of the film’s more successful sequences, tripping on acid. It’s also unclear as to why Harvey waits so long to make his move on Olive (other than the reasoning that anything exciting has to be saved for the climax). He commits his first murder early on, but then doesn’t do anything to Olive other than put a spider in her contact case. This lack of action makes for an unfortunately dull film. Not a lot actually happens.
Luckily, Bates still shows talent as a director. Tone-Deaf is shot well and the editing is brisk and lively, and there are a few genuinely funny sequences peppered throughout the film. Olive’s experience at a car wash is a particular highlight, as is a sequence in which Harvey crosses paths with another local murderer. Tone-Deaf’s first act is actually its strongest, giving us a chance to get to know Olive and her friends (played by Hayley Marie Norman and Excision‘s AnnaLynne McCord). There are a few funny jokes in these scenes, but they’ll inspire chuckles instead of outright guffaws.
The biggest issue for viewers is undoubtedly going to be Olive herself. A vapid and selfish person, she just isn’t all that fun to be around. This isn’t to say that a protagonist has to be likable in order for a film to be good (some of the greatest movies have flawed and unlikable lead characters), but she also isn’t interesting. There is an attempt to add layers to the character by giving her a sympathetic backstory, but the execution doesn’t fully work. You see, Olive’s father (played with energetic glee by Ray Wise) committed suicide while she was performing at her piano recital as a child. This leads to her one defining character trait: she plays the piano horribly but doesn’t know it (hence the film’s title) because everyone is too afraid to tell her the truth. This includes her own mother, who is living on a hippie commune near(?) Harvey’s house and rarely puts forth any effort to build a relationship with her daughter. Olive and her mother communicate via phone calls and texts for some of the film, but the mother is such a cipher that any attempts at reconciliation are unearned.
Harvey has a similar issue in that the only tidbit of information we get to know about him is that his wife recently died. This leads him to murder for some reason, even going so far as to murder one of his longtime friends. The film hints at the fact that he’s been a psychopath his entire life but his recently-deceased wife was the one thing keeping his murderous tendencies at bay, but Bates doesn’t seem interested in exploring that at all. It’s an unfortunate missed opportunity at character-building.
With four films under his belt, it’s clear that Bates is better when he leans into his darker tendencies and goes for the horror in his horror-comedies. When it comes to cracking jokes (as he does in Suburban Gothic and Tone-Deaf) he isn’t as successful. Maybe he’s the victim of a curse decreeing that his even-numbered films will be bad and the odd-numbered films will be good. If that’s the case, here’s hoping that his follow-up to Tone-Deaf will be another winner. He’s more than capable of it.
Tone-Deaf had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 10, 2019.