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Jim Caviezel stars in a scene from the movie Sound of Freedom.None/Angel Studios

Something strange is going on at the multiplex.

This past weekend, the North American box office was topped by Tom Cruise and his latest Mission: Impossible sequel, which was no surprise. But coming in just behind that blockbuster was Sound of Freedom, a tiny curiosity with no major studio behind it, no billboards or mass-media marketing, and a star whose last big movie came out 20 years ago. Despite being everything that a summer movie is not, Sound of Freedom has earned US$85-million and counting, or about five times its production budget. What’s more: The film’s July 15-16 weekend marked a 37-per-cent rise in box office compared with the weekend before – an almost unprecedented second-week bump.

How much you might have already heard about Sound of Freedom largely depends on which corners of the internet you spend your free time. If you have no idea who or what QAnon or Pizzagate might be, then bless your innocent, untainted online heart. If, however, you regularly brush up against conservative outlets such as True North or the Daily Wire, then you already know that director Alejandro Monteverde’s indie is a movie that has amazed Jordan B. Peterson, compelled Mel Gibson to weep and so deeply moved Donald Trump that the former U.S. president offered to play host to a special screening at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club.

But with the film’s financial triumph, what was fringe is becoming mainstream. And the aftershocks could mark a new front in the culture wars.

At its basics, Sound of Freedom is a no-frills thriller, the kind of project that, with a little more bloodshed and a slightly higher budget, might star Liam Neeson. Instead, Jim Caviezel – Gibson’s one-time Lord and Saviour from 2004’s The Passion of the Christ – headlines as Tim Ballard, a Homeland Security operative who, weary of arresting supercreepy pedophiles while letting their victims languish beyond American borders, decides to go rogue and take down child-sex traffickers directly in Colombia. With the help of a reformed cartel fixer (played by veteran character actor Bill Camp), the support of his extraordinarily patient wife (Mira Sorvino, who appears for approximately two minutes) and the momentum of his own personal credo (“God’s children are not for sale!”), Ballard busts up myriad dark-skinned baddies and rescues dozens of cherubic kids.

As a movie, Sound of Freedom is thoroughly mediocre – a low-fi law-and-order flick that only finds its pulse through outlandish paranoia rather than character or story. Ballard – a real-life agent whose exploits have come under intense scrutiny and skepticism – is a cipher on-screen, with nothing driving his suicidal crusade other than his beatific visage (who wouldn’t want to be rescued by Jesus?). The hero’s desire to save children abroad instead of staying home to raise his own remains curiously unexplored, while his reckless tactics appear to work through sheer dumb luck, instead of real-world expertise.

The most powerful moment of the film is not its undercover-cop set-pieces or tear-stained climax, but its outlandish opening sequence – a montage of seemingly manufactured surveillance-camera footage depicting faceless villains snatching up random kids off the street. It is a slick threat that no one’s kids are safe from the dangerous “other,” especially yours.

Sound of Freedom is a forgettable piece of cinema, neither a triumph nor atrocity. But it does have two secret behind-the-scenes weapons up its sleeve. The first is actually located in the middle of its end credits, when Caviezel appears as himself to call the film the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 21st-century slavery” and urge audiences to “pay it forward” and buy tickets for others who cannot afford them. A handy QR code even pops up on the screen to enable the purchase, the rare time a movie’s creators ask people to pull out their phones during a screening.

This technological tactic from Angel Studios, the film’s fledgling Utah-based distributor specializing in “wholesome“ content, may be one of the reasons that Sound of Freedom has scored such high box-office numbers. Although it is reasonable to ask how many people are actually taking advantage of the pay-it-forward offer to watch the film, and how many tickets are purchased but never redeemed. (Representatives from Angel Studios did not immediately respond to queries regarding ticket sales sent by The Globe and Mail.)

The film’s second advantage, though, is its queasier one – Sound of Freedom boasts a distinct adjacency to the right-wing conspiracy-o-sphere. Shot back in 2018 but unable to secure the financial means to launch a wide release until now, Sound of Freedom has been building a production narrative that it is the one film that liberal Hollywood doesn’t want you to see. Why? While the screenplay never lets slip the words “QAnon” or “Pizzagate,” two interrelated conspiracy theories that posit the U.S. is run by pedophiliac left-wing elites who can only be stopped by Trump, both Sound of Freedom’s subject and its star have made no secret of their MAGA dog-whistling – that they alone are truth-telling underdogs engaged in the real fight for justice.

In a 2020 video that is now snaking its way through the Sound of Freedom discourse, Ballard claimed that children are bought and sold on social media, referencing a viral conspiracy that online furniture retailer Wayfair was trafficking abducted children inside its storage cabinets. A year later, Caviezel appeared at a QAnon-affiliated conference at which he said Ballard was too busy to attend because he was saving children from the process of “adrenochroming.” Asked by a moderator to elaborate, the actor detailed an increasingly popular conspiracy theory, which has echoes of the antisemitic “blood libel” canard, in which “if a child knows he’s going to die, his body will secrete this adrenaline,” which is then injected into celebrities to prolong their youth. (Ballard repeated the vile theory during an interview this month with Canadian academic Peterson.)

It’s not unusual for celebrities to hold outlandish beliefs – see Cruise’s Scientology devotion – but it is something else to see a film not-so-subtly sold inside the vortex of such noxious ludicrousness. As Sound of Freedom makes clear in both its content and relentless social-media campaigns of its participants, child-sex rings are absolutely everywhere, and if you’re not personally hunting down the bad hombres responsible, you’re part of the problem. It is the Satanic panic of the 1980s all over again, greased by the wheels of the internet.

Writing about this film was not an easy decision – I’ve watched colleagues critical of it get pilloried online, accused of being secret pedophiles looking to slander the reputations of brave freedom fighters. Mention how Ballard has quietly parted ways with his anti-trafficking group or how top experts in the field have decried the film’s “false perceptions” about the reality of child trafficking, and prepare for an onslaught of ugliness that betrays the purity of the movie‘s holier-than-thou advocates.

Ultimately, Sound of Freedom is a mediocre film that has been packaged in a brilliantly disingenuous fashion – a C-movie cri du coeur, furious that it is not taken seriously even when it is frothing at the mouth.

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