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SXSW 2021 Review: 'Sound of Violence' is nothing but background noise

An empty vehicle for some 'Saw'-inspired kills that never delivers on its potential.

Two women sit in a small RV looking at music equipment
(Image: © You Know Films/No Office Films)

Our Verdict

A tropey horror film that swings for the fences but misses by a wide margin.

For

  • 🎵 Solid central performance by Jasmin Savoy Brown
  • 🎵 Interesting reimagining of an overdone premise: murderer as artist
  • 🎵 It can be a pretty looking movie with splashes of experimental visuals

Against

  • 🎵 The deafness aspect seem like a macguffin
  • 🎵 The central tenet of the movie that a formerly Deaf person would be willing to kill to keep their hearing is ableist; ironically, it's not even explored in any interesting way
  • 🎵 There's also a level of magical disability and magical disability cure here too, which is pretty corny.
  • 🎵 There's a version of this movie that could have made a statement about the way that ableist and hearing society drives people to do terrible things but that's not this movie
  • 🎵 There's also implicit homophobia at play here as we get a repressed lesbian killer
  • The procedural elements drag the film down to a made-for-TV quality level
  • 🎵 The interior logic or rules of the film fail to hold up, making it hard to suspend your disbelief
  • 🎵 Doesn't live up to the promise of the short that inspired it

Sound of Violence is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

In 2018, Alex Noyer made a short film called Conductor. The multi-award-winning horror focused on a young man entering a beat-making competition who's helped by a mysterious young sound tech named Alexis. His beat is a success but he quickly realizes he's a pawn in the macabre game created by his benefactor. It's a slick six minutes that feels like a mix of We Are Your Friends and Saw. Basically, it was good, corny, scary, B-movie fun that could've definitely been used as a calling card for a feature. That feature is an expanded reimagining of the concept called Sound of Violence. Here, Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is a young woman who was deaf as a child but got magically cured by murdering her dad--no, we don't get an explanation--while he was killing her mother and brother. While killing him, she gained synesthesia and apparently her hearing. That will come into play later as both are key to her journey, though neither make sense in the context that we're introduced to them in the film, and Noyer never makes an effort to weave that fantastical element in. 

This was a film I was both excited and nervous to check out. As far as I could find, there were no Deaf actors or creators involved in making the film, which is always a red flag. But the visuals were interesting and there seemed to be scope for it to deliver on its potential. Alas, the resulting feature is a messy and unpleasant tale that isn't abstract enough to be truly experimental and uses the concept of deafness as a macguffin to explain the murderous tendencies of the lead character. Whereas in Conductor Alexis is a joyous sort of killer, one who dances when she hears her tune, here Noyer makes a tragic sort. A formerly-deaf musician who is in unrequited love with her roommate and uses violence as a way to inspire her synesthesia. That's where the film's number one logical issue appears. There's no clear rules about this: Alexis first experiences it when she's deaf and yet begins a killing spree to "keep her hearing" and her synesthesia. She experiences synesthesia when she hears the "sound of violence" but it also happens when she hears music that's almost completely normal as long as she knows it was made by someone who was hurt. 

As an atmosphere piece, the film might have worked if it wasn't broken up by Saw-inspired crime procedural segments that feel like they're straight out of a made-for-TV movie. Speaking of Saw, Noyer definitely has an imagination for torture porn. There are a few inventive deaths here, but the rest of the movie often feels like an expository transport to those sequences which the director clearly has a lot of fun with. In that way, the choice to add deafness to Alexis' backstory makes little sense. Noyer clearly wanted to make a movie about someone making music with the sounds of death and murder. It's been done before--and better--with films like Berberian Sound Studio, but there's no harm in adding a new string to that subgenre's bow. But whereas the inclusion of a Deaf actor or even a Deaf writer could have made this a truly interesting exploration of the concept of sound and how different people experience it, instead we end up with a hearing actor playing an evil Deaf--formerly Deaf, maybe going to be Deaf again--character who just for good measure happens to be a tropey repressed lesbian killer archetype too. 

Brown does her best as a quirky weirdo who loves to kill to make music and has a lot of fun murdering annoying men with theremins--the best and most outrageous scene in the film--but isn't really given much to work with beyond being bitter and murderous. Luckily, she's a talented actress and sells the peaks of joy and despair that Alexis experiences as she goes on her blood-soaked journey. While this is predominantly her movie, she's joined by her roommate Maria (Lili Simmons) who when she's given screen time is an interesting foil. For the first act of the movie the friendship is its strongest part, but sadly it devolves into a weakness as Alexis is obsessed with Maria and that seems to be another driving force behind her killings. It adds another uncomfortable layer to the killer as she then becomes an evil lesbian on top of being an evil once-Deaf killer who needs her hearing so bad she'll kill. 

Ironically, though, that thread isn't even really explored, which makes the choice to add deafness to the character baffling. It's more background noise as Alexis kills people to make what honestly sounds like '00s industrial music. There's some unintentional moments of humor as her classmates balk at her gruesome tunes that just sound like any noise band or grindcore group. Generally, her exploration of music doesn't feel immersive or real enough, and we never truly get a feel for the sounds she's trying to make with her killings. It's an empty thread that ties together Noyer's over the top kills and gory setpieces without actually offering up any depth or substance. 

It's a shame as there are moments when Alexis is dancing in the pink and orange hued lights, and when the bursts of synesthesia explode before our eyes. There are moments that hint at a stranger and more moving film, one with less focus on interesting kills and more on the character at its core and her journey through sound. But this isn't that movie. Sadly, as we slowly wander towards the ridiculous final kill which makes zero sense--why would Alexis make her roommate/love interest into a walking speaker and then also be wearing headphones while listening to her??--it all feels rather unnecessary. It's like an empty echo of a film that could have had something to say but instead of a subversive earworm becomes nothing but a forgettable foray into torture porn and the most tropey parts of horror.