Directed by Richard Bates Jr.
Written by Richard Bates Jr.
Starring Amanda Crew, Robert Patrick, Hayley Marie Norman, Johnny Pemberton, Nancy Linehan Charles, AnnaLynne McCord, Tate Ellington, Ray Wise, Kim Delaney, Ray Santiago, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Shane Brady, Christian Calloway, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Nelson Franklin, Heidi Kaufman, Morgan Krantz, Stacey Machelle, Dianna Miranda, Danny Ramirez, Pia Shah, Gigi Zumbado
The world is fucked up. While people waste their time online arguing back and forth between rights and lefts, the world continues to spiral around the void in between these extremes. I often say that the more messed up the world is, the better the fiction in books, comics, and hopefully film. While I find the film a bit problematic, I admire EXCISION writer/director Richard Bates Jr. for what he is trying to do with TONE-DEAF. It’s about a meeting of two clichés; the aimless millennial liberal and the crochety baby-boomer conservative. Both loathing, disrespecting, and if they are honest, jealous of each other. And it couldn’t be timelier to explore the differences between these two extremes.
Amanda Crew plays Olive, a down on her luck millennial who just lost both her job and her boyfriend. Taking the advice of her friends and hippie mother, she decides to get away from it all and rent a house in the country. That house is owned by Harvey (Robert Patrick), whose resentment for the world has recently grown exponentially since his wife’s passing. He also has some very strong views against the millennial lifestyle and has been developing some homicidal tendencies. These tendencies reach a fever pitch just around the time Olive shows up to rent his guest home for the weekend. Soon their differences in opinion, politics, and world view make for some gnarly carnage where no one gets out unscathed.
The setup for TONE-DEAF’s confrontation is representative of the conflict between age, gender, and political views that is sensationalized in the news every day. What Richard Bates Jr. does surprisingly well is put both Olive and Harvey in an unsympathetic light. Bates has made a career of telling stories about despicable people. EXCISION focused on a disturbed girl trying to find understanding in a weird suburban world and it is by far his most successful and accomplished film. SUBURBAN GOTHIC was a misfire and TRASH FIRE was a step in the right direction with Bates successful in making a despicable couple likable by the end of the story.
In TONE-DEAF, Bates presents Olive as spoiled and entitled. She’s judgmental towards the serendipitous and peaceful lifestyle she seeks to bathe in when she goes to the countryside. She’s rude, aimless and most importantly, not likable when we meet her.
Harvey is not likable as well. He rants to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, about politics, cultural issues, and annoyance towards all things millennial. He is also a psychopathic killer who is trying to hone his craft before attacking Olive, the poster child for the millennial age in his eyes. He also experiences vivid dreams that are spectacular breaks from the real world not unlike Anna Lynn McCord’s character does in EXCISION. But in TONE DEAF, these dream images of blood and sexuality just don’t seem to fit in Harvey’s mind as well as they did in the mind of a sex obsessed teenager in EXCISION. Despite chewing up the scenery and getting most of the good lines, Harvey is not likable when we meet him either.
TONE-DEAF begins just as TRASH FIRE does; with two unlikable people doing and saying unlikable things. But in TRASH FIRE, the journey and trials the two face allow us to endear ourselves to these jerks and see the humanity underneath and they face these issues together. By the end, we want them to survive and live happily ever after. While the beginnings are similar, TONE-DEAF instead makes no effort to push us to like either Olive or Harvey. In fact, by the end of the film, I liked them less. I think it would have been better had both died ugly, bloody deaths.
The most important moment in TONE-DEAF is when Olive and Harvey make a connection amidst the carnage—both having lost a loved one recently. The movie hinges on it and I think Bates missed his mark on making this a truly exceptional commentary on the world today. This could have been an opportunity to show that despite the differences, there might be some hope that what makes us similar could be the bridgeway to resolving our vast differences. I am not saying I wanted a wishy-washy ending with doves flying and rainbows forming between Olive and Harvey’s smiles, but something more along the lines of either being cornily optimistic or bloodily pessimistic would have made for a much more thought-provoking story. We got neither though. Instead we get an easy way out that not only fails to be relevant or weighty, but begins and ends with unlikable characters. Bates knows who the audience is for these films and, in the end, bows to them and gives the film a definite winner in this situation.
It’s too bad too. This is a great idea—a conflict indicative of the time we live in. I think the main problem lays in the script, which seems to want to be a hoot but fails to come off as funny as it could be. Patrick does a mean impression of Clint Eastwood in GRAN TORINO and is kind of lovable under all of that hate, but Amanda Crew has an annoying Tea Leoni vibe that I just couldn’t connect with. Still she is talented and makes for a believable millennial (maybe too believable, and that’s the problem). I really think this is a case of great idea/mediocre execution. I grinned from ear to ear when I saw the trailer, hoping to relish in the glee of seeing two extremes go at it in bloody and timely stabs–but it never lived up to those expectations. While TONE-DEAF has its moments, it fails to be as bitingly satirical as it wants to be. The bloody cat n’ mousing going on between these two characters only lasts a short time in the last half hour. I think this could have been extended to the length of the film and made for a truly nutzo film. Bates just misses the mark here—never achieving the greatness visually and contextually that he did with his first film, EXCISION. Still, I’d give it a mild recommendation for Patrick’s performance and the ingenuity of the idea behind TONE DEAF.