After a harrowing cold-open, Tone-Deaf begins with a dysfunctional relationship — a staple in Richard Bates Jr.’s filmography. Olive (Amanda Crew) and York (Nelson Franklin) are arguing about the trivial things that have plagued their relationship for quite some time. “This isn’t working,” Olive tells him, “You need, like, a younger girl whose interests don’t extend far beyond eating, drinking and fucking.” This turns out to be the easiest break-up she’s ever had, as York replies that he’s “Already found one.”
As if the day couldn’t get any worse, Olive is then fired from her job. Her hippie mother suggests that she spends a quiet weekend away to clear her mind, something that her friends, Lenore (Hayley Marie Norman) and Blaire (AnnaLynne McCord), also encourage. With bigger childhood dreams of being a pianist, Olive plays the keyboard for her friends who tell her that she’s great, even though she’s tone-deaf.
Olive ends up renting a country house from Harvey (Robert Patrick), an old-fashioned widower, whose wife died by suicide. When we’re introduced to Harvey, he makes it clear that, as a boomer, he hates millennials: “They’re not self-aware enough to realize how little their lives really matter.” He breaks the fourth wall a lot, specifically to yell at us millennials watching. If we want to do something useful, he says, we should drink some bleach and sacrifice ourselves to help with overpopulation. Harvey hates the modern world and the young people who now fill it. This is the focal point of Tone-Deaf — the war between boomers and millennials, which only grows stronger as the film progresses.
Tone-Deaf is a satire mixed with elements of horror and dark humor. It has a lot of fun with its gimmick, but it also manages to touch upon the heavier themes of loss. Harvey isn’t the only one to lose someone to suicide, as Olive’s father (played by Ray Wise) died the same way. They are both affected deeply by these tragedies and have visions of their loved ones. Harvey also has dreams which show us his violent tendencies. He is losing his connection to reality via dementia, but he has one thing left to check off on his bucket list: he wants to know what it feels like to kill someone.
It’s refreshing to see how Bates Jr. pays attention to the little things, such as Olive wearing contact lenses. She even sleeps in a pair by accident and suffers the dryness of taking them out afterward. However, these things work more like plot devices. There’s not much depth to either character which doesn’t work in the film’s favor. While Harvey remains interesting due to his disturbing nature, Olive doesn’t seem that captivating for a protagonist. However, they’re likely just meant to be caricatures of what they’re supposed to represent.
The film’s emotional stakes seem to derive more from if you’re on Team Boomer or Team Millennial, but Tone-Deaf pokes fun at both sides. Newspapers are always full of headlines that tell us how boomers or millennials are ruining the world. It’s evident that in this satirical dig at an absurd debate, Bates Jr. finds both sides of the argument to be fairly ridiculous. Bates Jr. also isn’t exactly known for creating likable characters, but Tone-Deaf still would’ve benefited from stronger characterization to fully aid its outlandish.
Bates Jr.’s filmography has always screamed out his personality and Tone-Deaf is no different. He aims to tell intense stories that are rich in dark humor, satire, and tragedy. While Tone-Deaf doesn’t work as well as his previous films, it’s still entertaining to watch two different generations with different mindsets square off against one another – it’s just a shame it takes too long to get interesting. The moments of gore hit well, but the pacing during the last twenty minutes feels a little slow, causing the pay-off to feel somewhat underwhelming at times. However, Tone-Deaf still has plenty to offer despite its flaws; it’s just perhaps not as clever as it wants to be, but the dialogue is still vivacious.