Probably for as long as there have been parents and children, there’s been a war waging between generations. Parents tend to think that the ones coming up have no regard for way things used to be and children think it’s their responsibility to change the status quo. Sometimes these conflicts arise in forms more visible, like the culture wars of the late sixties which saw the Silent Generation (born 1925 – 1945) engage in public disputes with the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) in various anti-war demonstrations. This, of course, continued during the height of the Civil Rights Movement as generations fought to destroy or protect the traditions upheld by society. Now, it’s Millennials, or Gen Y, (born 1981 – 1996) and Gen Z, or Centennials, (born 1996 to present) in conflict with the Boomers. The gripes are less about pronounced social constructs and are more frequently about how Boomers see Millennials as wanting rewards for nothing and Millennials see Boomers as responsible for corporate greed and climate destruction. In most cases, the bickering is just a distraction from putting into action real solutions which benefit the whole. Strangely, this seems to be at the heart of Richard Bates Jr’s (Suburban Gothic) Tone-Deaf, a genre mash-up of slasher horror, dark comedy, and socio-political satire which literally pits one generation against the other in a fight for their lives.
Olive (Amanda Crew) is having a rough go of things, whether she’d admit it or not. First, she and her boyfriend York (Nelson Franklin) break-up, then she loses her job after her scumbag manager Asher (Ray Santiago) accuses her of insubordination. After being pushed by her friends and semi-estranged mother Crystal (Kim Delaney), Olive leaves Los Angeles for a little rest and relaxation. What she doesn’t realize is Harvey Parker (Robert Patrick), the owner of the home she’s renting for the weekend, has finally decided to act on his swelling desire to commit homicide.
It’s rather ingenious of Bates Jr. to title the film Tone-Deaf. In its obvious meaning, it refers to Olive, whom we meet at the start of the film as a young girl in the middle of a recital. Before the audience sees her, they can hear the slightly off-key playing before the sight of a young girl at a piano comes panning in from the right as it travels to the left across the screen. Her inability to play is a running gag throughout the film, which ties neatly into Bates Jr.’s more intentional, metaphorical meaning, which relates to a person’s inability to perceive nuance. Despite its multi-color palette, Tone-Deaf is violently black and white as two conflicting ideologies refuse to see their connection to the other, blaming each other for the ills of the world without consideration for personal responsibility. Interestingly, this applies explicitly to Harvey and implicitly to Olive. In the beginning, Olive’s presented as a person who struggles to make connections as a result of her father’s suicide and her mother’s withdrawal from conventional society when she was young. She doesn’t overly express blame, however, through the course of the film, there are moments where a little bit of resentment and frustration leak out. As a character, she has legitimate concerns about the abandonment she faced as a child and deals with it in stereotypical Millennial fashion — sarcasm. Harvey, however, is presented as more outwardly venomous through two brilliant narrative mechanisms which allow the audience to peek into his mind. One won’t be spoiled here, but the other comes in the form of vivid night and daymares. In these sequences, an all-red clad Harvey stands in an all-white room where he engages with figures in blue latex and white wigs. At first, these sequences seem like a method of keeping the audience off-balance, but, by the end, it becomes clear that these are attempts by Harvey’s psyche to process his feelings for the world. While Olive does have her own psychological trauma bleeding into the real world, Harvey’s is a hemorrhage that will see an entire generation buried if given his way.
One of the stranger aspects of Tone-Deaf — and there are several — is the shift in focus from Olive to Harvey. Unlike most slashers wherein the protagonist, or final girl in this case, takes center stage, the whole of Tone-Deaf shifts once Harvey enters the picture. Olive just wants a chance to get away and she just picked the wrong house to stay in. For her, this is literally just bad timing. For Harvey, however, this is an awakening of a deep urge. To understand it, the story splits off from Olive, focusing more on Harvey’s actions as he weaves in and out of her story. The benefit here is that Harvey becomes like a shark circling a prey which is clueless to danger. So when Olive goes to a bar for a drink, Harvey tracks her there and sits in a corner. When she’s making a meal, he’s drying the bathroom floor from her shower. He becomes a disturbing presence which crawls under your skin long before the first drop of her blood is shed. It’s the final 30-minutes of Tone-Deaf where the gloves come off and Bates Jr. demonstrates just how much tension he can pull out of a scene. It’s truly exquisite dread as Olive unknowingly navigates the house throughout the weekend, unaware that every choice she makes gets her closer to horrific violence, except the audience can see it coming. Bates Jr. makes sure that the only jump scares are psychological and the rest is laid bare. In the latter, the tension comes from the audience knowing the inevitable. By the end, every choice Olive makes becomes an absolute nail-bitter.
Where Tone-Deaf succeeds is in the way it uses social and class conflict to create the excuse for mayhem. Patrick delivers a perfectly biting performance as a man with violent and angry tendencies who’s just decided that he’d hate to die never having murdered anyone. Though the character of Harvey is stereotyped in a few ways, Patrick manages to make him more accessible so that the audience doesn’t write Harvey off as just a simple lunatic. Harvey’s got beliefs and principles, even if he’s too blind to see how his stubbornness is part of the problem he has. Though the bulk of the film has them separated, Crew is every bit Patrick’s equal, giving as good as she gets. It’s not the depiction of Olive as a member of the Me Generation which makes the character engaging, but Crew’s ability to go all in on the best and worst of her. In concert, it’s difficult to tell if Olive and Harvey represent some belief about trans-generational conflicts as powered by hubris and pain or if he’s intentionally leaving that up to the audience to decide for themselves, hoping that the images he presents incite as much discomfort among the audience as he does the characters. One things for certain, while Tone-Deaf isn’t the phantasmagorical head trip the marketing suggests, it definitely bends the rules of reality just enough to feel like you’ve gone on a journey.
In theaters and on VOD August 23rd, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.