I had really high hopes for “Tone-Deaf.”
It features a more-than-capable cast headed up by veteran actor Robert Patrick and Amanda Crew and also including Emmy winner Kim Delaney and “Twin Peaks” alum Ray Wise. Trailers promoting the film — which opened in limited theatrical release and arrived on a number of digital streaming services Aug. 23 — suggest a smart, black comedy masquerading as a home invasion horror flick. Richard Bates Jr., the writer and director, is known for mixing visceral horror with politics and social satire.
Considering the popularity of recent genre fare boasting political and sociological themes, “Tone-Deaf” could have easily fit into that niche comfortably alongside “Get Out,” “Assassination Nation” and “Velvet Buzzsaw.” It could have evoked the debauchery and dispassionate violence of the 1982 black comedy “Eating Raoul” or the scathing satire of Brian Yuzna’s surreal body horror classic “Society.”
Alas, “Tone-Deaf” fails to live up to expectations. But wait: It isn’t a total loss. The film offers glimpses of diabolical genius even if the final product fails to satisfy.
For instance, Patrick delivers a sensational performance as Harvey, a widower living in a rural setting. Harvey is slowly unraveling as he faces the prospect of spending his “golden years” in solitude. His estranged son believes he is suffering from dementia. As his backstory bubbles to the surface through private confessionals and conversations with a neighbor, the viewer learns that Harvey probably rounded the bend a long time ago.
Bates serves up some delightfully hypnagogic imagery, particularly when emphasizing Harvey’s continuing descent into madness. For more than half of “Tone-Deaf,” the director meticulously sets the tone. The viewer watches as Olive, played by Crew, arrives at Harvey’s sprawling home in the country. Convinced by friends to take a break from the city after she loses her job, Olive blindly walks into the spider’s web. Bates forces the audience to watch Harvey study his prey. The voyeuristic technique is as effective as it is unsettling.
Another one of the film’s more engaging elements is how it breaks the fourth wall. When Harvey first turns toward the camera to speak directly to the audience, the effect is legitimately unnerving. His sporadic asides are like unfiltered social media rants that provide insight into his troubled mind.
Unfortunately, none of these favorable aspects of “Tone-Deaf” can save it from Bates’ preoccupation with making this a film about generational conflict. That’s what the director ultimately upholds as the motivation for Harvey’s homicidal fantasies. Harvey repeatedly voices a distinct loathing for millennials. Olive, of course, epitomizes everything the grumpy curmudgeon believes is wrong with her generation. Crew does such a fine job of making Olive unlikable that the audience never summons up much sympathy for her.
In fact, Bates seems to go out of his way to make sure no one in this film is worthy of compassion. In the microcosm of “Tone-Deaf,” everyone is terrible.
The invented friction between millennial and baby boomer distracts from what is an otherwise taut, suspenseful home invasion horror film. Bates shoehorns in the subtext of contemporary culture wars galvanizing the murderous impulses of the film’s antagonist, indelicately burying the tension and trepidation.
Early in the film, Harvey admits that he has never killed anyone and wonders what it feels like to take a life. It is evident that he has spent a lot of time thinking about murder. Circumstances provide him with a victim. No further motive is required for the character to act — but that’s not the message Bates wants to convey to his audience. Bates unseats the character’s natural instincts and replaces them with an artificial catalyst that better suits his theme.
With stunning visual cues that recall the work of master filmmakers as disparate as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, “Tone-Deaf” buckles beneath the weight of the director’s contrived social satire. It’s a disappointing misstep for the man who delivered “Excision” (2012) and “Trash Fire” (2016). Even though his most recent offering didn’t live up to its potential, I look forward to seeing what Bates tackles next.