Type the words “sound of freedom” into Twitter (decent people who wish to live good, happy lives should under no circumstances actually do this) and the search will yield dozens of triumphant reports crowing about the improbable victory of a film by that title over the likes of Indiana Jones at the box office this week.
That’s not, strictly speaking, accurate – Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny had already been out for five days, the first three of which out-earned Sound of Freedom’s opening-day take, when the new independent thriller came to theaters on Tuesday. But for a fleeting moment this past Fourth of July, while the intended audience of Indy’s latest outing was presumably spending time with their families and friends at barbecues or in other social situations, an unoccupied fandom rallied by the star Jim Caviezel claimed the day with a $14.2m gross versus Dial of Destiny’s $11.7m. No matter that these figures require selective, almost willfully misleading framing to allow for the David-and-Goliath narrative trumpeted by supporters; as the copious tweets accusing Disney of being in cahoots with a global cabal of high-power pedophiles make clear, the truth doesn’t have too much purchase around these parts.
However one chooses to slice it, Sound of Freedom has over-delivered on expectations in dollars and cents, a feat of profitability uncommon for a comparatively low-budget production without a major Hollywood-led promotional campaign. Judging by the robust round of applause that concluded the fully-seated screening I attended on Wednesday evening – and this, in the liberal Sodom of Manhattan! – it would seem that the folks at the two-year-old Angel Studios have tapped into a substantial and eagerly marshaled viewership.
Following that money leads back to a more unsavory network of astroturfed boosterism among the far-right fringe, a constellation of paranoids now attempting to spin a cause célèbre out of a movie with vaguely simpatico leanings. The uninitiated may not pick up on the red-yarn-and-corkboard subtext pinned onto a mostly straightforward extraction mission in South America, pretty much Taken with a faint whiff of something noxious in the air. Those tuned in to the eardrum-perforating frequency of QAnon, however, have heeded a clarion call that leads right to the multiplex.
Caviezel stars as special agent Tim Ballard, a Homeland Security Investigations operative who really did work for the state busting up child-trafficking rings for more a decade. (Or so he claims – the DHS can neither confirm nor deny the real Ballard’s employment history.) Even if he did not literally have the face of Christ, Ballard would still exude an angelic aura as he gently hoists dirty-faced moppets out of peril with the gravely uttered catchphrase: “God’s children are not for sale.”
In Sound of Freedom, he leads a unit to Colombia and eventually goes rogue on his single-minded quest to locate and liberate the still-missing sister of a boy he managed to save from sex slavery. The defenseless siblings are drawn into the nefarious clutches of their abductors in the stomach-turning opening sequence, which clinically walks us through the steps by which a glamorous and implicitly trustworthy woman poses as a modeling scout to round up the most apple-cheeked prospects and separate them from their parents. In a montage that plays like a JonBenét Ramsey fancam, she stokes our horror by primping the youngsters with red lipstick and suggestively mussed-up hair.
And yet a coating of plausible deniability covers a film that takes care to be the most anodyne version of itself, all while giving those in the know just enough to latch onto. The traffickers are anonymous foreigners, mentioned as “rebels” in an unspecified regional conflict with no connection to the alleged Clinton Crime Family, though a title card at the end points back to America as a hub for the “$150bn business” of exploitation. The religious dimension seldom extends beyond a god-fearing undertone, most perceptible in archetypes like the reformed sinner on the righteous path. (Character actor supreme Bill Camp classes up the joint as “Vampiro”, a former narco who gave up his profligate lifestyle after fornicating with a 14-year-old while in a cocaine haze.) The trafficking follows no motivation more elaborate than the servicing of rich predators, eliding all talk of body-part black markets and the precious organic biochemical of adrenochrome harvested as a Satanic key to eternal life. The first rule of QAnon: you don’t talk about QAnon where the normals can hear you.
Caviezel has saved that for his promotional media appearances, such as a recent drop-in to Steve Bannon’s show War Room on MyPillow proprietor Mike Lindell’s streaming channel Lindell TV. In the course of their interview, he conveyed the severity of the situation by explaining that an enterprising salesperson would have to move 1,000 barrels of oil to match the sum they’d get for filling one barrel with the rendered corpses of the innocent. Elsewhere, he’s parroted falsehoods about Pizzagate and other underground cells subsisting on human blood, all of it pointing back to a foundation of conspiratorial thought targeting the Jewish and transgender communities.
These zestier strains of scaremongering are absent in the text itself, but they lurk in the shadows around a film outwardly non-insane enough to lure in the persuadable; the disappointingly un-juicy Sound of Freedom pretends to be a real movie, like a “pregnancy crisis center” masquerading as a bona fide health clinic. (Our hero Ballard, by the way, went on to found the paramilitary rescue squad Operation Underground Railroad, a group criticized as “arrogant, unethical, and illegal” by the authorities. But then, they would say that. They’re in on it, this goes all the way to the top, etc.)
Those hoping for a few detached laughs at the deep-dish delusion sneaking onto the mainstream radar will be bored by the straight face donned for the duration of the run time – until, that is, a small counter in the corner of the credit roll warns of a “Special Message” in two minutes. Having dropped his character, Caviezel himself appears to say that though we might be feeling frightened or saddened, he’d like everyone to leave with a message of hope for the future. Directly after establishing that he’s not the center of attention here, he betrays an evident messianic complex by announcing that his movie could very well be the most important ever made, going so far as to compare it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its campaign to shine a light on 21st-century slavery. This is all for the children, we’re told, but they can’t do much to save themselves, can they?
For the first time, a self-serving foundation peeks through the cracks of noble service, the lone honest beat in a purported exposé of scandalizing facts. All of a sudden, this snare of wild-eyed falsehoods starts to make sense, its scattered ideology falling in line under the organizing principle of hoarded influence. And right on cue, as if in divine affirmation, a QR code pops onscreen linking to a site that puts patrons two key strokes away from buying $75 worth of additional tickets for the movie they’ve just seen. Though we differ on the culprits and causes, everyone agrees that child trafficking is indefensible, a third-rail standing that also makes the subject effective as a cudgel. Caviezel’s final statement double crystallizes the nonetheless foggy stakes: if you’re not with us, you’re with them, whoever they are.