'Tone-Deaf' Review: Murderous Boomer Hunts a Millennial in Very Apt Title
If you want to make a horror satire that pits baby boomers against millennials, full stop, boomers need to be the monster. Them’s the rules: Soaring debt and warming temperatures from the fossil fuel industry mean we know the crimes of boomers, while the sins of millennials are yet to be determined. Millennials aren’t saints, but we also didn’t burn the planet. Yet Tone-Deaf makes a case that asks, “Well, what if everyone sucks?”
In the words of millennials that only Tone-Deaf thinks exist: I can’t even.
In Tone-Deaf, from writer/director Richard Bates Jr. (of the acclaimed 2012 horror Excision), aging boomer Harvey (Robert Patrick) rents his rural California home to Olive (Amanda Crew), an elder millennial laid off from a trendy L.A. fashion studio. Haunted by the death of his wife, Harvey snaps and decides to kill Olive, targeting his rage against her as the avatar for all “ungrateful” and “lazy” young adults.
“I’m doing a service to mankind smashing your brains in,” Harvey tells her in a moment of vulnerability. When the tables turn, Olive responds with equal bemusement: “Bankrupt the country? Not smart. Destroy the environment? Not cool. Try to kill me? Not a chance.”
And that’s what you get in 90 minutes: A gory slasher with a limp grasp at of-the-minute relevance. Clumsy in its arguments and careless in its story, Tone-Deaf is a violent satire appealing for those who learned all their social cues from South Park. The harshest social critique you could say is that everyone sucks — a clueless philosophy that’s got no teeth. Without zeal or wit to match its arguments, or even any good action to make up for it, Tone-Deaf bears a title that is far too fitting and not to its benefit.
The problem is Tone-Deaf’s unwillingness to empathize with its characters. No one is engaging or heroic enough for us to want to see win, including Olive. While the film objectively frames Harvey as the bad guy, a Fox News-watching monster, Tone-Deaf is unwilling to also side with its millennial final girl. Olive is just as shitty, and it leaves us without a clear moral center we want to see win and survive.
Olive — played by a fun Amanda Crew, who explores an exaggerated side of her other notable millennial, Monica in HBO’s Silicon Valley — and millennials like her are hardly put-upon in the boomer-run world of Tone-Deaf. They exist in a “bubble” where they’re selfish, bored, prone to gossip, and disinterested in genuine connection: Olive’s best friend snorts coke over FaceTime, her similarly-aged boss is a #MeToo case who never gets comeuppance, and a Tinder date slips Olive roofies. (Don’t worry, he gets what he deserves. He’s the only one who does, really.)
Tone-Deaf doesn’t like boomers, but it really doesn’t like millennials. But, I don’t know the millennials Tone-Deaf mocks. Sure, I’ve met plenty of shallow, vapid, and nasty young adults. But Tone-Deaf doesn’t have a clever vocabulary of the millennial ego. The film earnestly subscribes to the boomer’s imagination. I can picture my uncles and military brother laughing their heads off at Olive and her friends. “Yup,” they’d say in a deep gruff between sips of Budweiser, “That’s totally what they are.”
All the while, there’s not a blip from Gen-X or Z to lend another perspective. The film has nothing but contempt for anyone alive, and it’s this negativity that stays with you that is decidedly unpleasant.
There’s only one thing about Olive that has gas, and it’s that she is a survivor of paternal suicide (as revealed in an elegant opening that’s rather heartfelt). Yet even this part of Olive’s story falls flat when you give it a second thought. An acid trip halfway through the film makes the point that Olive is a basket case because she didn’t have her father, who could have stabilized her into adulthood. Speaking from personal experience … fair, but the point is made too tactless to be meaningful.
But the gravest sin against Tone-Deaf isn’t what it thinks about generations. It’s that it simply wastes a perfectly good Robert Patrick. Still an ass-kicker years after he was the T-1000 from T2, Patrick is clearly having fun hamming up the screen. But the movie’s just not worthy of his efforts, leaving him a weak script that doesn’t let him fully wield his underrated screen presence. In a better movie, Patrick really can be a terrifying, deranged, and violent Sixty-something, but he’s just as much a cartoon as his Harvey thinks millennials are.
I will let this sum up everything that’s wrong with Tone-Deaf: Occasionally, and for no reason, Harvey breaks the fourth wall to talk to millennials, criticizing them as flannel-wearing crybabies. Later, he has a nightmare where he’s surrounded by actual, crying babies in flannel and Clark Kent glasses. Tone-Deaf wants to provoke us into some kind of outburst reaction, good or bad, and does so by mocking millennials as soft and making boomers murderous. Tensions are ripe for a clever satire about generational divides, but all Tone-Deaf does is make a whole lot of noise.
Tone-Deaf hits theaters on August 23.