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Sound of Freedom

“Sound of Freedom,” the movie of the moment, has a message first, and a story second. Its message is to get us to care more about the horrors of child sex trafficking. It does that by showing queasy sequences of kids in danger, being carted around by slimy adults, and making us remember everyone’s faces. Then it gives us a weary hero, Tim Ballard, an American man whose superpower is that he cares. This father and husband cares so much that he leaves his job at Homeland Security ten months before earning a pension. Instead of only catching pedophiles, as he has done nearly 300 times before, he goes to Colombia and undercover to help rescue children. This man is played by a gentle and gravely serious Jim Caviezel, who shoulders this message’s suffering just like when he played Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” 

The story is true, but it barely comes to life with such a telling. Which is a shame, not just because it’s uncomfortable to be numbed by these themes, but also because director Alejandro Monteverde well-clears the low bar for filmmaking one expects from movies that are message-first (and often come with similar faith-driven backers). Take away the noise surrounding it, and “Sound of Freedom” has distinct cinematic ambitions: a non-graphic horror film with what could be called an art-house sensibility for muted rage and precise, striking shadows derived from an already bleak world. If “Sound of Freedom” were less concerned with being something "important," it could be more than a mood, it could be a movie. 

All on its own, “Sound of Freedom” is a solemn, drawn-out bore with a not particularly bold narrative stance—caring about the safety of children is roughly the easiest cause for any remotely decent human being. Previous films like “Gone Baby Gone” and “Taken” have also banked on that tension, showing how easy it is to be invested in a story when children are stolen and put into uncertain danger. But while being so committed to such solemnity and suffering, the truncated storytelling by co-writers Monteverde and Rod Barr neglects to flesh out its ideas or characters or add any more intensity to Ballard’s slow-slow-slow burn search for two kids in particular (Lucás Ávila’s Miguel and Cristal Aparicio’s Rocío) whose faces haunt him. The “true story” framing only gives it so much edge before that, too, is dulled. 

This world is so fraught with worry about the children that it seems to avoid creating tension elsewhere, and so it places Ballard in dull scenes opposite gullible one-dimensional creeps; his undercover missions, which sometimes have him speaking like the pedophiles he is pursuing, are more about the audience’s discomfort than his danger. There are hardly any mind games to be played, just the settings of sting operations made from a broad idea of how this would happen in real life. It's one anti-climactic moment after another, and while it's intriguing how Monteverde leans away from violence or machismo, it puts little else in its place. (For anyone gearing up to see "Sound of Freedom" because the poster has Caviezel holding a gun and a glare, this isn’t that kind of movie.)

Handsomely stark scenes are often reduced to three or four lines of dialogue, including the eureka moment of how Ballard gets involved in the process. A work buddy asks him how many children he’s saved, so Ballard changes his line of work. Mira Sorvino, as Ballard’s wife Katherine, plays a character who is credited at the end as inspiring his whole journey, but we only hear from her a couple of cliche sentences at a time. We at least get to hear more from Bill Camp, playing a confidant for Ballard. Camp has a gutting monologue about being at the heart of darkness of child sexual abuse. He’s also there to say the movie’s title and sets up Ballard to say its catchphrase, which you can now buy as a bumper sticker: “God’s children are not for sale.” 

With his blonde hair cutting through the movie’s gray and black palette, Caviezel is a crucial anchor for this hollow character study to be taken as seriously as possible. It's an intriguing, restrained performance but loses its appeal parallel to how the movie doesn’t develop Ballard beyond being a symbol. A casual YouTube search on the real Ballard shows that he’s a far more outspoken, hyper type than we see here. It suggests a different tone for such a character-focused story, and one wonders why the makers were weary of it. 

“Sound of Freedom” takes place in, and posits to be, a tough conversation piece about the world of child sex trafficking, but it’s hardly any more informational than a horror movie about bogeymen. A few factoids about the pervasiveness of modern slavery are shared in text at the end, and there’s a note about how Ballard's dedication helped pass legislation that made international cooperation on such stings more possible, but these notes are overshadowed by “Sound of Freedom” yet again being misguided and making the cause about itself. As the end credits play, Jim Caviezel re-appears to say how the makers of “Sound of Freedom” believe this movie could be the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin for 21st-century slavery.” He says that the children shown in the movie are the real heroes but spends most of the time trying to empower you, the people, to spread the word, scan the QR code, and buy more tickets so other people can see this movie and put an end to this horror. But there’s little transparency here about how seeing Monteverde's film can help stop child sex trafficking, as this movie suggests. The suspiciousness of "Sound of Freedom" is queasy itself. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Sound of Freedom movie poster

Sound of Freedom (2023)

Rated PG-13 for thematic content involving sex trafficking, violence, language, sexual references, some drug references and smoking throughout.

131 minutes

Cast

Jim Caviezel as Tim Ballard

Mira Sorvino as Katherine Ballard

Bill Camp as Batman

Kurt Fuller as Frost

Gerardo Taracena as El Alacrán

José Zúñiga as Roberto

Scott Haze as Chris

Gary Basaraba as Earl Buchanan

Eduardo Verástegui as Paul

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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