by Anton Bitel
Slashers and other kinds of psychodrama typically feature a sequence which, in a phrase borrowed from Sigmund Freud, gets called the ‘primal scene‘ – often opening the film, or shown in flashback, and capturing the formative psychosexual moment of childhood trauma that leads a confused young innocent to become a profoundly disturbed individual in adulthood. In keeping with its title, Sound of Violence comes with not so much a primal scene as a primal sound: back in 2002, deaf 10-year-old Alexis (Kamia Benge) witnessed her father, the PTSD-afflicted army veteran Barry (Wes McGee), bludgeoning her mother (Dana L. Wilson) to death in their family home – and when the little girl herself hammered Barry’s skull with a meat tenderiser, not only was her hearing suddenly restored, but she had an intense multi-hued effect of synaesthesia. It was an episode that she would, from then on, seek to recreate, in an attempt to understand the incomprehensible and to experience the ecstasy anew.
Growing up to be a sound engineer, experimental composer and adjunct to a university musicologist (Brian Huskey), young Alexis (now played by Jasmin Savoy Brown) really does not look the part of sadistic serial killer – but perhaps that is merely a consequence of our limited experience and narrow horizon of expectations as viewers. After all, it is hard to think of any cinematic mass murderer who is also a young WOC apart from McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) in Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls (2017) – and from Alexis herself. At first Alexis tries licit outlets for her highly particularised desires, getting permission to record a submissive being whipped by a dominatrix – but when that proves less satisfactory for her than the crunching sound of a fatal accident that she witnesses shortly afterwards, she sets in motion a plan to create her masterwork: a mixtape of sounds sourced from different modes of bodily destruction. Yet even as Alexis represses her feelings for roommate Marie (Lili Simmons), her bitter jealousy towards Marie’s new boyfriend Duke (James Jagger) risks getting in the way of her ultimate composition – if, that is, police detective Sonya Fuentes (Tessa Munro), following a trail of bodies, does not catch up with her first. There is something giallo-esque about this combination of cruel murder set pieces and police procedural – an impression helped by the lurid colours used to represent Alexis’ synaesthetic perceptions.
Sound of Violence falls into that strange subclass of films – think Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), Eitan Arrusi’s Reverb (2007), Alanté Kavaïté’s Écoute le temps(2007), Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem (2012), Youssef Delara and Victor Teran’s Snap (Enter the Dangerous Mind) (2013) and Andrew Desmond’s The Sonata (2018) – which privilege the recording of sound over the shooting of images, drawing our attention to the artful way in which music, noise and foley work can be remixed to engender a new way of hearing reality. Before writing and directing Sound of Violence and the short film Conductor (2018) from which it evolved, Alex Noyer produced the feature-length documentary 808 (2015), about the influence of the Roland TR-808 drum machine on the world of electronic music. Its influence is felt here too, as Alexis turns one of her early victims into a grotesque human beatbox.
Yet Alexis’ determination to remix the world according to her own psychotic predilections leads, ironically, to a work that may well, for many viewers, fall on deaf ears. “I knew that people would never understand what I saw or felt,” says Alexis in voiceover near the beginning of Sound of Violence – and later she will say, “I wish you could hear what I hear.” Certainly her students prove an unappreciative audience when she plays one of her compositions to them (“What the fuck! Are those animals being slaughtered?”, says one in visible as well as audible disgust) – and while viewers reared on cyberpunk, industrial, electronic dance music and dubstep may not find her tracks so unfamiliar, it is far harder to get a handle on Alexis’ character, with her grossly overdetermined primal scene (witnessing of, and participation in, murder, plus sudden recovery from deafness and onset of synaesthesia) and bizarrely ingenious torture-porn methodology for turning human beings into instruments. Alexis has just a little too much going on, which makes her an alienating, utterly unsympathetic and rather implausible character – and so, while the film’s premise is sound, its notes, not unlike its protagonist’s special pieces that nobody else wants to hear, never land on the ear quite right. Perhaps this is the desired effect, in a film about a composer of discordant tunes who is also out of harmony with herself, and doomed, after orchestrating her own exultant auditory climax, to be left with only the reverberating echoes of deep tristesse.
Sound of Violence played as part of the SXSW Film Festival