Experimental musician, DJ and teacher’s assistant Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is working on a seriously killer track. But the high she is chasing, in writer-director Alex Noyer’s uneven but often inventively grisly feature debut, is not that of pop stardom or peer admiration. Instead Alexis, due a condition whereby she experiences the sounds of human pain as a glorious starburst of color and pleasure, is attempting to knit her disorder into a sonic artpiece, no matter the rising bodycount of her “instrumentation.”
With its themes of creative obsession and trauma recycled as psychopathy, not to mention Alexis’ synesthesia giving license for lurid, semi-abstract, technicolor visual sequences, “Sound of Violence” boasts perhaps the greatest giallo premise that Dario Argento never dreamed up. It’s just a shame that Noyer decides that it isn’t enough. The spectacularly gruesome and grotesquely elaborate murder scenes do ample justice to even the most revered of its slasher forebears, but the procedural elements feel stilted, and despite a lead performance that oozes empathy as much as her hapless victims ooze blood, the emotional impact is barely discernible: an ebbing heartbeat.
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The latter is particularly disappointing because the film gets us on Alexis’ side in the most visceral way possible, spooling back to a fateful event in her childhood (the younger version is played very sweetly by Kamia Benge). Deaf since an accident some years earlier, the little girl regains her hearing in the same moment she discovers her haywire, multi-sensory reaction to the sound of mutilation, when she takes a meat hammer to her father’s head, as he is in the act of bludgeoning her mother to death.
Eighteen years later, Alexis is an outwardly well-adjusted, if withdrawn young woman who only seems animated in two environments: teaching a college seminar about her borderline mystical philosophy of percussion, and hanging out with her friend, flatmate and stealth crush Maria (an appealing Lili Simmons). Maria, who has recently started casually seeing Duke (James Jagger), is also a music student with a knack for engineering, and she’s innocently helping Alexis with her sonic art project by wiring special equipment, and accompanying her to some pretty outré recording sessions. During one, a dominatrix inflicts pain on a client, and Alexis experiences the tantalizing beginning of her synesthesia — here rendered in flares of hot pink shimmer and spirals of neon smoke darting and uncoiling in the air all around. But Maria and the dom hit the brakes once blood is drawn and the sub taps out, despite Alexis’ fervent goading to go further.
It’s obvious she needs to hear more extreme suffering to experience her high, which has a trippy, addictive quality — and that she’ll have to do it alone. Also, it needs to be quick as it’s cursorily explained that she may be about to lose her hearing again — a ticking clock on her subsequent actions that could have been better developed as a tension-inducing mechanism.
Soon she’s dispatching a series of unwitting victims in a variety of fantastically sordid, intricate ways that reveal the hitherto unsuspected lethal potential of a drum machine, a theremin and a harp whose strings are jerry-rigged to fingertip-shredding tautness. These extravagant death scenes are also where Noyer’s team’s craft shines best, especially Daphne Qin Wu’s slick photography, and the music, by Jaakko Manninen, Alexander Burke and Omar-El Deeb, which sounds appropriately industrial-slaughterhouse. But despite the rigorous planning and construction that has to go into these murders, Alexis is oddly blasé about their cover-up, and soon the trail of bodies attracts police attention in the form of Detective Fuentes (Tessa Munro), which is bad news for Alexis, and for the film.
Outside of its terrific deaths, there’s plenty of thematic richness in “Sound of Violence,” if Noyer had wanted to go the “elevated horror” route: Alexis’ plight could be seen as a kind of pact with the devil whereby she regained the world of sound but must lose her own soul in its pursuit thereafter. But this would require a more interiorized, subjective, descent-into-madness vibe than the equivocal script is willing to pursue. Instead, we get a rather plodding side dish of detective sleuthing — which can feel like the actors have stumbled onto the set of “Berberian Sound Studio” from the “NCIS” lot next door. And while the editing, by Hannu Aukia and Vertti Virkajärvi is excellent at establishing the tempo within a sequence it’s less so over the movie as a whole, which, ironically for a film about music, lacks a proper dramatic crescendo. It all suggests a certain indecision over whether “Sound of Violence” is designed to be a (loosely) real-world psychological thriller, or a high-concept video nasty. Either one of which, Noyer clearly has the ingenuity and dexterity to pull off — just maybe not both at the same time.
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