Richard Bates Jr. garnered plenty of attention with his debut film Excision. His follow-ups Suburban Gothic and Trash Fire haven’t done as well. And in the case of Trash Fire, that’s a real shame. Now he’s back with Tone-Deaf, an attempt to blend “a dark critique of the bizarre cultural and political climate that currently exists” with slasher tropes. Can he pull it off?
Olive (Amanda Crew, Isabelle, Silicon Valley) has just lost her job and her boyfriend, what should she do now? She joins the Army. No, wait, that was Bill Murray. She rents out a room from Harvey (Robert Patrick, The X-Files, Terminator 2: Judgment Day). He’s a nasty, irritable misogynist who still uses an ancient CRT monitor. Even worse he’s decided it’s time to tick an item off his bucket list, taking a human life.
Bates sets the two main characters in Tone-Deaf at polar ends of their respective groups, making their clash inevitable. It also makes them almost impossible to like. Olive is a self-absorbed millennial who’s friends talk about taking “pawternity leave” to bond with a new fur baby. He’s a miserable old widower, somewhere beyond the stereotypical Trump supporter, He even chose Olive as his victim after seeing a picture of her holding a sign saying “This pussy grabs back”
Thankfully the black humor kicks in quickly and helps to make what could have been grating, quite palatable. Harvey loses his temper and stabs somebody only to say, “I didn’t really think this through” before finishing the job. That sets a lot of the tone for the rest of Tone-Deaf which quickly goes down a bloody rabbit hole.
One thing that will alienate more than a few viewers, however, is the repeated breaking of the fourth wall. Harvey repeatedly rants directly into the camera, something that’s mildly amusing once. After that, it gets old fast. It’s even more of an information dump than Olive’s acid trip featuring her exes and dead father. Bates is a creative enough writer and director that Tone-Deaf shouldn’t have to resort to techniques like these.
Despite this, Tone Deaf largely works. Excellent performances by the leads as well as nice turns by Ray Wise (AM1200, Batman: The Killing Joke) and Kim Delaney (Project: Metalbeast, NYPD Blue). Bates also has the good sense to get rid of the tonal shifts in the final act. The humor is set aside in favor of a genuinely tense confrontation between Harvey and Olive.
While not all it should have been Tone-Deaf rises above its faults and delivers the goods. Saban Films will release Tone-Deaf in theaters and On Demand on August 23, 2019.