SXSW 2021: Sound of Violence

A sonic slasher that fizzles more than it sizzles

The issue with Sound of Violence, as I see it, is that the film is simultaneously hindered and enhanced by its self-serious tone. The premise itself is silly, yet the kind of thing that will undoubtedly pique the interest of the midnight movie crowd. Writer-director Alex Noyer (adapting his short film Conductor) tries to walk a fine line, servicing his story’s darker instincts while working through its ideas about art, creation, and following one’s dreams. The film exists somewhere in the milieu between Berberian Sound Studio and The Perfection, to put you in the ballpark. Sound of Violence is undone a bit by its higher-brow aspirations and only hits the right notes when it indulges the nastier implications of the title.

It’s about a young woman, Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown), whose impaired hearing appears to have be restored due to the grisly sounds of a brutal murder. The noises of a body being bludgeoned, stabbed, and destroyed hit Alexis at a frequency that is restorative and healing. Fast forward to college, and Alexis is on the verge of losing her hearing again. With time running out on her hearing and her dreams of teaching and creating music, Alexis seeks out the squishy, splattery, wretched sounds of people suffering immense pain in order to create her masterpiece. It’s a funny spin on the idea of someone chasing their dream to destructive ends. Instead of going down the Whiplash path of sacrificing herself for her art, Alexis finds people she can sacrifice instead.

The only time Sound of Violence comes to life is in the kill scenes. I don’t want to spoil the movie’s most creative moments, so you’ll have to take my word that they are the movie’s highlights. One kill, in particular, stands out so much that I won’t be surprised if it eventually pops up on lists of Best Movie Kills. That said, Sound of Violence badly needed to up the body count to avoid the tedious stretches of watching Alexis’ day to day life. Along for the ride with Alexis is her friend Marie (Lili Simmons), who seems to be Alexis’ only friend as well as chief enabler. Early in the film the two recruit a couple to record their sounds of their BDSM activities. It’s a moment that should give the game away to Marie, as Alexis demands more pain to be inflicted on one of the participants with all the luster of a vampire barely restraining herself amidst the overwhelming scent of blood.

As the film progresses and Alexis isolates herself, the film becomes more of a showcase for Brown, and this is where the threads start to come undone. Brown’s best moments come when the character is at her most unhinged, casting off euphoric looks and movements as the sounds of someone’s death unleashes her creative juices. Noyer compliments these scenes with colorful soundwaves that play across Alexis’ face. It’s a nice visual flourish in a film that is otherwise stale in that regard. The film’s sincere moments all ring flat, with nothing in the performances, writing, or directing working in that key. Alexis’ hearing loss, in particular, seems like a creative misstep. Rather than something inherent to the story, it feels like a tacked on character quirk. If that part of the character is gone, the story isn’t affected much. It made me think of Natalia Leite’s M.F.A., another movie that takes a serious topic and builds a bloody thriller off of it. The difference is that Leite’s use of sexual assault is important and inherent to her film’s success whereas Alexis’ hearing loss feels incidental to Noyer’s story, and the result feels disingenuous. Sound of Violence is best in its trashier moments and frustrating outside of those bits.

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