On paper, Alex Noyer’s Sound of Violence has all the building blocks needed to succeed as a dark and twisted indie horror. The concept and synopsis sound fascinating, and the film expands upon themes Noyer has already explored for years. However, the execution ultimately fails due to mixed messages regarding the lead character’s motives and state of mind and the far-fetched execution of the titular violence. Noyer tries to do too much with her character and the themes he successfully explored in his award-winning short, Conductor. As the villain of that film says, “Start simple; then add a kick.”
Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown; “The Leftovers”) lives as deaf until she witnesses the murder of her family at age 10. Her hearing returns, combined with chromesthesia, granting her the ability to see mesmerizing colors along with certain sounds. In Alexis’ case, the colors only appear when she hears physical mutilation done to human bodies. Now an adult, Alexis works as a music teacher and continues to experiment with sounds, in hopes of creating a noteworthy composition. To achieve her vision, she needs powerful sounds.
Alexis has a supportive roommate, Marie (Lili Simmons; Bone Tomahawk), who knows her story and passion for sound. The two of them hire couples who engage in BDSM to allow Alexis to record the noises she needs, only everyone has their limits. Alexis needs more. Threatened with the possibility she could lose her hearing again, Alexis takes methodical, bloody steps to record the noises she needs and complete her masterpiece.
Alex Noyer’s feature-length debut expands upon a theme to which he clearly feels drawn: drum machines as possible tools of violence. His documentary 808 debuted at SXSW 2015 and covered the popularity of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, a compact but versatile tool used by musicians as diverse as the Beastie Boys, Whitney Houston, and Phil Collins. Then in 2018, Noyer created a short, Conductor [link to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8FNpBgaVBw&t=14s%5D, that was the darling of various horror film festivals. In that story, a teen male enters and wins a contest at a suburban mall seeing who can create the best beat using one of the drum machines, only to find that he’s unknowingly expedited murder of a grim and bloody nature. The short worked because it’s brief, shocking, and doesn’t stop to ask why.
In contrast, Sound of Violence begins by setting up Alexis as a character who engenders empathy. We learn about her traumatic past and the reason for her passion for music and sound. In the brief flashback to her childhood, we get to experience her sudden change from deafness to sensory ecstasy through the sound design and color-saturated cinematography. The first 30 minutes of the film allow viewers to remain riveted and in step with Alexis’s arc. Then a switch occurs.
Alexis turns from a sympathetic character to a one of Machiavellian proportions. Not only does she perform violence against unwilling victims to achieve the sounds she needs, but she does so through instruments of torture she supposedly builds in advance. Up until this point we have seen nothing to suggest she has the skill to do anything of this kind. One moment she walks down an alley and appears surprised to see a homeless man lying there. The next he is strapped down in a chair engineered to work by operating a drum machine. This is the first of many devices Alexis uses as the film progresses, each more gruesome than the next. During these segments, she blissfully operates the machines, bathing in the sounds of skin tearing, as if she is composing an electronic score. The sight of her in a state of euphoria as viewers see and hear bodies maimed blocks the viewer from feeling any sort of empathy for Alexis.
Other variants of the screenplay could have easily worked. In Conductor the Alexis prototype shows up with no background or story, and the focus of the plot remains the shock and awe of the contraptions built. Like in film franchises like Saw, the forces of evil build elaborate methods of torture, but viewers aren’t asked to align with those forces. In addition, the victims of the films have hidden sins, so viewers can even muster up some need for divine justice as an excuse to revel in the gore. Alternatively, Alexis could have caused violence without intent, maybe with the homeless man, and then find she can’t stop because of the addiction achieved by the colors. Lastly, the film could have used sound design to block out the violence and allow viewers to only hear the sounds of bliss Alexis hears, so we can understand how she might have gone too far. None of these paths are followed. Alexis would have to be a sociopath to allow herself to knowingly harm another person, but we see no signs this is the case until the reveal of Alexis being a sociopathic murderer which forces audiences to abandon her as a character of empathy.
Viewers are hungry for stories about those in the deaf community, as evidenced by such recent films as Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal and Sian Heder’s CODA, and there are few films with positive, realistic representations about synesthesia. In addition, Noyer’s drive for creating music-driven horror is fascinating and a theme that definitely interests this viewer, who very much adores any film in which music serves almost as a character. And for what it’s worth, both Brown and Simmons give impressive performances. Brown, with her head of black corkscrew curls and dancer-like way of moving is a perfect choice to play a musical composer and creator of sound, while Simmons has a playful, warm energy that makes her well-suited as Alexis’ roommate, best friend, and possible dreamgirl.
Sound of Violence had all of the potential to be an innovative and compelling story of a woman driven to compose the perfect score who finds she can only create the sounds she needs through extreme measures. It was born out of a simple tale of a suburban mall turned bloody and gruesome in a shocking twist that leaves audiences reeling. Viewers of Conductor wanted Noyer to expand on that story, as evidenced by the many comments left on the video and gleaned from critical reviews. However, Noyer converted his tale of gore to a more psychological character-driven horror. Those two are very different stories. Unfortunately, the only possibility of enjoying this film comes for viewers who purely enjoy seeing cleverly orchestrated acts of violence on screen. Those viewers exist and should be allowed to enjoy such films with no judgment, but Noyer could have done more with this story than to be just a vehicle for torture porn.
Premieres at SXSW Film Festival 2021 March 18th, 2021.
In theaters and on VOD May 21st, 2021.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.