Studio: Saban Films
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Writer: Richard Bates Jr.
Producer: Lawrence Mattis, Brad Mendelsohn, Matt Smith, Brion Hambel, Paul Jensen
Stars: Robert Patrick, Amanda Crew, Haley Marie Norman, Johnny Pemberton, Nancy Linehan Charles, AnnaLynne McCord, Ray Wise, Kim Delaney
A struggling young woman spends a getaway weekend in a secluded house owned by a widower on the brink of becoming a psychopath.
After four feature films, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to find new ways of putting writer/director Richard Bates Jr.’s unique work into words. Bates’ peculiar horror-humor hybrids rebelliously spit at the idea of fitting into conventional categories. In the past, I’ve analogized his movies using references to Wes Anderson, David Lynch, John Waters, Scooby-Doo, Pixie Stix candy, and Maker’s Mark whisky, most of which are interchangeably accurate when discussing Bates’ oeuvre.
Looking back at my reviews of Bates’ 2014 film “Suburban Gothic” (review here) and 2016’s “Trash Fire” (review here), it’s interesting to see some prognostication about his career trajectory coming to fruition. Arrogance would like to believe those idle musings had some influence on that arc. In reality, “Tone-Deaf” reflects a logical progression of Ricky Bates Jr.’s creative mindset as well as a darker maturity to the tone of his satiric thrillers.
Following up on the high school timeframe of his 2012 debut “Excision,” Bates set “Suburban Gothic” in the transitional period of post-college adulthood. “Suburban Gothic’s” cartoony humor borrows a bit from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brand of boner jokes, toilet gags, and other such low-hanging fruits. Deliberately clichéd characters and slapdash special effects further the film’s feel of being a snarky lark. Although “Suburban Gothic” is endearingly enjoyable as lightly lowbrow camp, at the time I said I’d like to see future features boomerang back to “Excision’s” disquietingly eccentric texture.
The indie auteur obliged by raising the stakes of seriousness with “Trash Fire.” “Trash Fire” still brushes itself with black comedy, yet it features a mean streak “Suburban Gothic” definitely doesn’t have. Perhaps that stems from the film advancing the evolution of Bates’ timeline by taking a jaded look at life through codependent coupling. In that review, I lamented that “Trash Fire” uncoiled “Suburban Gothic’s” bouncy spring by meandering in inessential asides and long lingers on single takes. The middle finger seemingly raised in convention’s direction made for a mood that said, “if ‘Suburban Gothic’ was too tame, choke on this angrier attitude instead.”
Having finally arrived at “Tone-Deaf,” Bates’ fiction now fits into a post-breakup stage where one has to find his/her identity through independence again. “Tone-Deaf” follows Olive, an average Angelino who just jettisoned her deadweight boyfriend, but got canned by her sleazy boss too. In a way, Olive wishes she had the free spirit of her mother Crystal, who joined a Luddite hippie commune following the suicide of Olive’s father, who hanged himself while Olive was off performing a childhood piano recital.
Friends tell Olive to clear her head by getting away for the weekend. Olive takes that advice by renting a remote home from a weirdo widower. Harvey hasn’t posted his house on Airbnb before. However, his troubled mind has a disturbing itch he intends to scratch with a wayward woman. Olive’s isolated vacation of flipping through Tinder, tripping on acid, and unknowingly setting herself up for a saloon stalker becomes legitimately life threatening when Harvey makes Olive a central figure for fulfilling a deranged fantasy.
As is par for the course for a Ricky Bates Jr. joint, “Tone-Deaf” takes place in a sideways version of reality populated by quietly quirky people. In addition to funneling every drip of drama, violence, and jocularity through the director’s distinct vision, convincingly creating this askew world comes down to equally quirky casting.
“Tone-Deaf” assembles yet another eclectic roster of venerable veterans and rising talents. Characters like Harvey and Crystal don’t have to be developed more deeply than necessary because of what Robert Patrick and Kim Delaney bring by virtue of their personas being already engraved in our minds. Amanda Crew capably covers her end of the deal by making Olive sassy, sad, sympathetic, and strong without allowing her annoyed ennui to become alienating. “Tone-Deaf” wouldn’t work without these particular people coloring an austere atmosphere using dialed-in acting.
Like Richard Bates Jr.’s previous films, “Tone-Deaf” isn’t in any hurry to hit its finish line, although its patient pace benefits from the lessons learned by earlier efforts bouncing between opposite ends of a cinematic spectrum. Techniques in “Tone-Deaf” are tighter. Crisper editing comes much quicker. One-and-done characters aren’t just cameos for famous friends either. Minor moments pile on purpose to larger themes or offer quick hits of humor.
Additional evidence of ongoing evolution across all of Bates’ films comes when I remember noting that “Trash Fire” had an odd trait of actors coming bizarrely close to delivering dialogue directly at the camera. “Tone-Deaf” goes all the way. Robert Patrick specifically stares down the barrel of the lens while reciting hateful monologues about millennials from the perspective of a pissed off baby boomer.
To tell the truth, it’s difficult to determine exactly what demons Bates intends to exorcise with his script. Harvey rants and scowls about fedora-wearing hipsters, “coexist” bumper stickers, and skinny margaritas at brunch while Olive takes turns griping about coastal elitism and cultural appropriation. In earlier films, it was easier to identify what Bates wanted to get off his chest. Here, some of the scathing slams come off so superficially, it’s uncertain if Bates is just stuffing the screenplay with buzzwords or truly means to swipe at hot topic terms. Even then, I can’t quite tell whose side he is on.
Much of this review repeatedly references Richard Bates Jr. and focuses on his full filmography because that remains the best lens for framing any one of his movies on an individual basis. “Tone-Deaf” tautly toes a line between the nuttiness of “Suburban Gothic” and the relative bleakness of “Trash Fire.” Finding that middle ground, the comedic chiller takes a canted angle toward telling an angsty tale about coping with depression in a frighteningly changing world. Even if certain themes come across a little foggy, “Tone-Deaf” clearly has confidence on the execution side of the equation.
I’ll say the same as I have before. If the previously mentioned titles are unfamiliar, “Tone-Deaf” might not be the ideal jumping on point for getting your feet wet in the weird worlds of Ricky Bates Jr. But if his other three films personally struck relatable chords for biting commentary as well as unsettling entertainment, “Tone-Deaf” assuredly will too.
Review Score: 70