As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Sound of Violence. Consider yourself warned.
When done right, a movie can be a more visceral experience than just a story to be seen and heard. It’s not often that such a flick comes along, but the new indie horror film Sound of Violence is a scary-good example. The story centers around Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown), a musician who experiences a neurological condition known as synesthesia. In her case, when she hears certain sounds, she not only hears them – she sees them.
Alexis’ first synesthetic experience came when she was a little girl (Kamia Benge). At that time, she’d lost her hearing in an accident. Things weren’t great at home, with her father (Wes McGee) having just returned home from a traumatizing deployment overseas. Alexis’ mom (Dana L. Wilson) and older brother (Mataeo Mingo) try to help maintain some semblance of normalcy, but dinner one night devolves into an extremely tense father blowing up at Alexis and she runs off to her room.
Later, as she sits in her room and “listens” to music by resting her hands on a boombox’s speakers, Alexis feels a loud thump in the floor. She gets up and follows the noise, feeling it in the walls. She goes into the living room only to see her father murdering her mother, the loud thumps being him hitting her repeatedly with a cleaver.
Alexis hides, continuing to feel the horrible vibrations. But then she bravely emerges, going after her father with a meat tenderizer. As soon as she hits him with it, the sound causes an explosion of light and color in her mind, along with an incredible, drug-like rush. Instead of feeling fearful or angry at what’s happened, the synesthesia makes her giddy with pleasure. The even more amazing thing – her hearing suddenly returns. It’s a disturbing image as the police arrive and lead Alexis out of the house, all bloody and smiling, determined to “feel it again.”
Cut to the present day, where grown-up Alexis is now substitute-teaching at her college. She seems extremely well-adjusted and quite brilliant, as she gives a passionate lecture on the importance of percussion. “Sounds carry messages,” she says. Alexis also has a colleague in her best friend and roomie, Marie (Lili Simmons). A genius at customizing audio equipment, Marie gives Alexis a special mixer she made just for Alexis’ “weird little experiment” – which is about all she knows about it.
Alexis goes to her favorite music store and finds a strange-looking, old instrument called a theremin, which makes an eerie, slide-whistle-type sound as she waves her hand over it. She plays “Amazing Grace” on it, getting lost in the sound. More on this later.
Then, Alexis and Marie go on a field trip of sorts, to record sounds for Alexis’ piece. It ends up being the house of a dominatrix (Lola Davidson), who’s got a submissive all tied up and ready to go. Marie and Alexis set up their equipment and start recording the sounds of the dominatrix slapping the sub with a riding crop.
The “light” slaps aren’t enough for Alexis, who tells her to make the sounds louder. As the dominatrix moves up to a paddle and then a cat-o-nine tails, the sounds grow louder, sharper and more severe, which starts to trigger Alexis’ synesthesia. But with his back all bloody, the poor submissive taps out and Marie stops the recording, even though a desperate Alexis insists they keep going.
They go back to a garage that Alexis rents, where she keeps her family’s old RV that’s now her studio. Alexis gets pissed at Marie for not letting her continue, but Marie insists they got some good material. There’s a palpable chemistry between Alexis and Marie that clearly goes beyond friendship. But when Alexis wants to go further, Marie stops at a hug.
As Alexis listens to the recording again, she suddenly loses her hearing. It comes back after a second or two, but it scares her. She has a disturbing dream of pushing a guy out into traffic and the sound of him getting hit by a car triggers the synesthesia. When she goes to touch the guy, he turns into her father, saying she “got what she wanted.”
Alexis goes home and is not-so-pleasantly surprised to find a half-naked guy named Duke (James Jagger) in Marie’s bedroom. He tries to make nice, but an obviously jealous Alexis isn’t having it. Later, as she walks down the street listening to music, her hearing suddenly goes out again and only comes back when she nearly gets hit by a car.
She goes to see her doctor (Sarah Chaney), who tells Alexis that it’s the neural pathways that suddenly reconnected and brought back her hearing, not any actual healing of the tympanic membrane. So the stress and trauma that brought back her hearing when she was younger are triggering the losses now. The doctor says Alexis needs more tests as the hearing loss could get worse. This makes Alexis even more determined to complete her work.
She finds a homeless guy to be her next instrument, drugging him and hooking him up to an incredible, frightening contraption she’s made, something that looks like it’s right out of Saw. Alexis starts recording, flashing back to her parents’ murders as she plays the contraption like a drum machine. As the euphoria takes over, Alexis pounds on the pads – bludgeoning, stabbing and drilling the poor guy in a grotesque type of tune. She goes home and listens to the recording, playing the piano along with it, the synesthesia still swirling around in her mind.
Life gets increasingly stressful for Alexis – her hearing dropouts become more frequent. The pain of her unrequited love for Marie and having to watch her with interloper Duke increases the pressure she feels to complete her “work.” Meanwhile, the police are now on her trail, having found the homeless guy’s body and the contraption.
Things get even worse for Alexis when her professor (Brian Huskey) encourages her to continue her lecture on percussion. She plays what she has of her experimental composition for the class. What starts out as a kind of Nine Inch Nails-type piece grows into something much more disturbing. The beats become fleshier and more impactful. Then screeching, screaming voices enter into it – the sound of violence. Both the professor and the class are horrified, and Alexis’ hearing drops out again as she runs out of the class.
She soon moves on to her next victim, a jerky record store owner (David Gironda Jr.), who responds to her flyer asking for a tenor singer. She says she wants to explore “his range.” He warms up to the National Anthem and it’s clear he’s not very good. But Alexis doesn’t really care anyway, as she attaches electrodes to his forehead and arms. Remember the theremin? Well, the electrodes are hooked up to that.
She tells jerky guy to sing “Amazing Grace” and hits a button on the theremin, which shocks him. He tries to stop, but Alexis takes control of his voice through the theremin. She pushes him harder and harder, keeping the shocks flowing into him until his eyes bleed and his head finally explodes. It sends a brief synesthetic rush through Alexis, but then her hearing goes out again.
Alexis leaves what’s left of the body and bleaches everything so that when the cops arrive to examine the bloody scene, there’s nothing to identify her. But the lead detective, Fuentes (Tessa Munro), just knows it’s connected to the homeless guy.
Meanwhile, a worried Marie goes looking for Alexis at her RV. Marie tells her how concerned she is that Alexis is getting too lost in her work. But Alexis assures her she’s okay, and pretty much implies that Marie should go away. Marie makes a comment about going out with Duke, and Alexis isn’t happy about it.
Cut to an art gallery, where Duke’s invited Marie to see an exhibit. Unbeknownst to them, Alexis is also there, hiding. She drugs the drink of a harpist (Tara Elizabeth Cho) who’s been hired to play. Once the harpist takes her drink, Alexis starts recording from her hiding spot. The harpist finds herself getting more and more out of it as Alexis tunes the harp strings remotely, tightening them.
The harpist keeps on playing in a sort of trance, even though she’s shredding her fingers on the strings. It takes a while for anyone to notice what’s happening. Even when they do, nobody does anything except stare. Then, the harpist collapses, and only Marie and Duke jump in to help her. Det. Fuentes shows up and tells Marie to call her if she remembers anything important. Duke tells Marie that he thinks he saw Alexis – but Marie warns him not to say anything to the cops.
In the morning, Marie wakes up to find Alexis back home. Marie tells her what happened at the gallery and asks if she was there. Alexis lies and says no, claiming she was in her RV working. When Marie goes to the kitchen, Alexis swipes her phone and texts Duke to meet her at the garage. Then, she tells Marie she needs to run some errands and she’ll be back.
When Duke shows up at the garage Alexis drugs him. When he wakes up, he’s in the RV, bound and gagged. Alexis tells him that she doesn’t want to hurt him, but she can’t let anyone stop her from completing her piece. “You made me do this,” she says. Then, she starts recording and begins hitting him with a sledgehammer.
Duke manages to knock her down, but she stabs him with a knife. She goes in with the sledge again and as the synesthesia kicks in, she laughs, continuing to hit him. Alexis puts the mic by his chest to hear his heartbeat. She grabs the knife and says a disturbing “thank you” as she stabs him, recording the terrible, fleshy squish and the sound of flowing blood.
Still at home, Marie goes looking around Alexis’ room and finds her old iPod. She listens and freaks out at what she hears. She goes to the garage and asks Alexis about the recording: a boy being punched and a girl giggling. Marie says it reminded her of what happened with the dominatrix/submissive. She asks if that’s what Alexis is into.
Alexis says the boy was a bully at the orphanage where she was sent to live after her parents’ deaths. She claims it was cathartic to exact her revenge on him and make music from it. Then, Alexis admits that she’s not good at letting people in – but she needs Marie, As they hug it out, Marie says she needs her, too.
Alexis tells Marie about her hearing loss, and they kiss for the first time. But then Marie sees blood on the floor. She opens up the RV and screams when she sees Duke. Cut to Marie waking up later, tied down in the RV. She asks Alexis why she killed Duke. But Alexis says Duke isn’t dead – he’s part of her music. Then, Alexis calmly chloroforms Marie, claiming she loves her.
Meanwhile, Det. Fuentes is hot on Alexis’ trail, getting information from her professor and the harpist, who’s recuperating in the hospital. She gives Fuentes the info on Alexis, who tuned her harp. While all this is happening, we see Alexis doing some kind of makeshift surgery on Marie, using her electronics. We can’t even fathom what she might be creating. By the time Fuentes arrives at the garage she finds Duke, but the RV’s gone. Alexis drives to the beach, leaving the RV’s door open as she walks off, putting some distance between herself and the crowd.
After a while, a bloody Marie emerges from the RV and struggles to walk toward the water. Alexis keeps her distance as she uses her phone to play her final piece – through Marie. She’s turned her into a human speaker, with woofers grafted to her chest, arms and legs. What’s just as disturbing as that image is the fact that no one helps her. In fact, most of the onlookers start recording on their phones.
Everyone Alexis has killed can all be heard in the “song.” Alexis just watches and listens from a distance, alternating between euphoric joy and deep sorrow as the synesthesia takes her over. Fuentes arrives just as Marie finally collapses and dies. Alexis cries from her spot, saying she’s sorry. Then, her work completed, she walks off down the beach, unnoticed.
Sound of Violence explores so many different ideas, and for the most part successfully. But it’s the study of the artist’s struggle and obsession, and the idea of the power of sound and its beauty even when it’s coming from a place of terror. Those are the themes that I found to be the most fascinating. Writer/Director Alex Noyer and Jasmin Savoy Brown accomplish a huge feat in making Alexis a character that we understand and empathize with, even though she’s a multiple murderer who revels in the suffering of others. That’s a pretty sobering thought.
Alexis’ relationship with Marie is another well-handled aspect – it’s deep and complex. We never question Alexis’ love – which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Alexis becomes so blinded by her artistic obsession and her addiction to synesthesia, that even the person she loves most isn’t safe. Lili Simmons also shines in her role as Marie, playing her with intelligence and kindness, as someone who’s just as confused about her feelings as Alexis.
Noyer handles just about everything so well, that it’s a shame to have to say that the story kind of falls apart by the ending. As soon as the police become involved, the tone changes from an artful, philosophical study to a rote, crime-drama procedural. And the rush to the incredibly vague ending leaves the audience wanting a resolution. It’s frustrating because the solution is such a simple one: have Alexis get caught. That would have given the detective an ultimate reason for being there and made Alexis deal with the consequences of her actions.
Problems aside, though, Sound of Violence is a true work of art. The able direction, powerful performances, inventive cinematography, sound design, score and makeup effects work all come together to deliver something totally unique. And it does what all good horror is designed to do. It scares and disturbs – deeply.
Written and Directed by: Alex Noyer
Release Date: May 21, 2021 (originally premiered at SXSW)
Run Time: 1 hr 34 min
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Available streaming on Fandango NOW