REVIEW: Sound of Freedom (2023, dir. Alejandro Monteverde)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 131 mins

UK Distributor: Angel Studios

UK Release Date: 1 September 2023

WHO’S IN SOUND OF FREEDOM?

Jim Caviezel, Mira Sorvino, Bill Camp, Eduardo Verástegui, Javier Godino, José Zúñiga, Kurt Fuller, Gary Basaraba, Gerardo Taracena, Scott Haze, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Yessica Borroto, Kris Avedisian, Cristal Paricio, Lucás Ávila

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Alejandro Monteverde (director, writer), Rod Barr (writer), Lukas Behnken and Eduardo Verástegui (producers), Javier Navarrete (composer), Gorka Gómez Andreu (cinematographer), Brian Scofield (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A federal agent (Caviezel) attempts to rescue children from a sex trafficking ring…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SOUND OF FREEDOM?

Absolutely nobody had on their 2023 bingo card a low-budgeted faith-based drama about child sex trafficking out-grossing the likes of Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, Transformers, and not one but THREE DC movies – and yet, Sound of Freedom has emerged as an unlikely contender for the year’s most surprising box office phenomenon.

Made for $14.5 million back in 2018, the film’s subsequent gross of over $180 million in the US alone has been the result of distributor Angel Studios’ unconventional “pay it forward” scheme, which challenged viewers to purchase tickets for other people and spread the film’s powerful messages as far as possible. However, there have been numerous concerns about the legitimacy of this practise, with reports of countless empty screenings across the country, and the film’s supposed links to popular QAnon conspiracy theories driving some audiences away (even though the film was conceived and made well before the world even knew what QAnon was). That, and the fact that it has been wholly embraced by far-right figures makes it understandably less appealing for the non-conservative masses to enjoy – or, at least, as much as one can with a film about such grim subject matter.

All of that, I feel, takes away from the fact that Sound of Freedom, as a movie in its own right, is simply okay. It absolutely isn’t without its weaknesses, many of them too major to ignore, but in terms of getting across an important message, no matter how bleak it may be, it is a mostly effective and well-made adult thriller about taking on the worst of humanity.

The film is based loosely on the real-life story of Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel), a Homeland Security Investigations agent who is tasked with identifying and capturing online paedophiles. When he manages to rescue young Colombian boy Miguel (Lucás Ávila), who along with his sister Rocío (Cristal Paricio) was kidnapped by traffickers and sold into sex slavery, Tim becomes determined to also save Rocío – as well as many other helpless children in captivity, but mostly just Rocío – and sets out to Cartagena where, with former cartel associate Vampiro (Bill Camp), he organises a sting operation to lure in the traffickers.

Given what it’s about, it shouldn’t be that surprising to learn that Sound of Freedom is not an especially easy sit. Director Alejandro Monteverde doesn’t shy away from some of the disturbing practises that these traffickers inflict upon numerous children, as well as some of the unmentionable acts committed by the people who purchase them, which does leave you feeling dirty as you’re watching it. However, one could argue that, in its close-up portrayal of the horrors of child sex trafficking, there is ironically some exploitation at play, with an opening montage that shows CCTV footage of children being snatched from the street (how much of it is real and how much is perhaps doctored is up for debate), and numerous scenes of teary-eyed children being forced to do things that no child should ever experience. It does feel incredibly manipulative, even if it is for an undoubtedly noble cause, and at times it subtracts the genuine effect that it wants to have on the viewer, which is to feel the heavy emotional pain that the situation is having on its characters.

Monteverde does make up for his film’s cloying tactics – from a script he co-wrote with Rod Barr – by adding a neat level of sophistication to his filmmaking. While you can certainly see the budget limitations in a number of parts, like a noticeable lack of extras in most scenes – Caviezel’s Tim Ballard seems to work in the most understaffed Homeland Security office in the world, because he will just take a prisoner out into the lobby with not even a security guard on standby – the cinematography is often striking, and isn’t afraid to take itself to grittier places within this criminal subculture, like if you’re watching Sicario with additional nonces. Sometimes, Monteverde will introduce a strong level of suspense to the mixture, most notably a late sequence where Ballard poses as a doctor inside a dangerous rebel zone within the Colombian jungle, where you’re always on edge and terrified that this person is going to get shot at any moment (which, for anyone unfamiliar with how Ballard’s story ends, does make it all the more terrifying to watch).

It is a well-made film for the most part, though there are still numerous issues with its editing, particularly with how it is paced. It wants to be the kind of slow-burn thriller that organically shows Tim Ballard’s prominent methods to capture these criminals, but there isn’t a consistent enough focus on the character himself – who isn’t that interesting here, and frankly neither is Caviezel’s sternly wooden performance – to make you really want him to swoop in as the all-American hero he’s clearly being portrayed as. The pacing ends up feeling rather sluggish, going from one drawn-out sting operation to the next, which aren’t without their decent moments of suspense but still do little to elevate your interest in who this guy is, or even what his home life is like (spare a thought for poor Mira Sorvino, whose shockingly thankless role as Ballard’s wife adds absolutely nothing to the story, and could easily have been cut out of the movie altogether). Because of that, it doesn’t take long before you start getting a little bored by the endless misery.

There’s so much more I could go into about this film, from some of the fruitless dialogue (including a title drop that feels unnaturally crowbarred in), to its astoundingly preachy end credits message from Caviezel himself, who at one point likens the film you’ve just watched to a modern-day Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, I’d rather answer the most fundamental question, which is: does Sound of Freedom actually have a good message? In some respects, I think it does, because there is a lack of public conversation surrounding sex trafficking of any kind, and the film’s success really does seem to have brought the issue to the foreground, which is an admirable quality that I can’t knock it down for. I wouldn’t say it’s a seamless conveyance of that message, for it does suffer from a lot of scriptural and editing problems that hinder the overall viewing experience, but it is undeniably effective, and I don’t think it comes from a hateful place, despite its overwhelming embrace from certain figures who have made hatred their primary brand.

Whatever you may think of it, though, the fact that it has made far more money at the box office than The Flash will never not be hilarious to anyone.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Sound of Freedom conveys a powerful message with a mixed execution, deploying heavily manipulative tactics and sluggish editing alongside some strong cinematography and a well-intentioned but conventional script to leave it as a thriller that’s simply okay.

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