Never mind the baseless controversy, ‘Sound of Freedom’ is simply a good thriller with a straight message about the evils of child sex trafficking

Justice warrior: Tim Ballard (Jim Caviezel) fights the child sex slave trade in ‘Sound of Freedom’.

SOUND OF FREEDOM *** (131 minutes) M
Given the garland of controversy that has accompanied the arrival of the hugely successful Sound of Freedom, it’s almost disappointing that the super-heated bluster over it being an incendiary, faith-based film pushing a right-wing agenda and championing Qanon agit-prop turns out to be baseless.

In actuality, the film unfurls as a fairly standard, well-directed thriller about a US government agent’s quest to rescue a child from sex traffickers.

Inspired by the work of anti-trafficker Tim Ballard, Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, and putting in sterling here) plays a fictionalized version of Ballard, a Homeland Security officer who goes after pedophiles and sex traffickers.

Despite hundreds of arrests Ballard is frustrated that his reach can’t go beyond the US border to the source of the ghastly child sex slave market. So, with the help of a department pen pusher he heads south on a mission to retrieve the sister of a boy he has rescued.

With the co-operation of police officer Jorge (Javier Godino) and accompanied by shady collaborator Vampiro (Bill Camp) Ballard infiltrates the odious underworld to set-up sting operations by posing as a pedophile.

This decidedly unplesant undercover gig requires him to casually chat with operators of the child sex trade and their clients as if they’re negotiating a deal for coffee beans. These scenes can be pretty hard to watch.

Director Alejandro Monteverde steers well clear of sensationalism while keeping the film emotionally charged, building to a tense final reel as Ballard poses as a health worker so he can get into the camp of a notorious sex trafficker and his heavily armed cadres.

It’s a good film, a little long perhaps, and the attacks on it serve as a prime example of just how unfounded and idiotic controversies can be.

The film had been derided as “faith-based”, as though that is somehow wrong.

In any case, though Ballard and Vampiro are motivated by faith, the film doesn’t dwell on the issue.

Their beliefs are mentioned – what? – twice in the film, making it no more faith-based than a Fast & Furious or Mission Impossible movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, anyways.

The Christianity of these characters and the righteousness of their mission to save children from evil no doubt accounts for why the film has been credited with appealing to believers – though it need be stressed that such considerations wouldn’t matter had the film not been a ripping yarn.

Any notion that Sound of Freedom is somehow a cinematic canoe for conservative – or ultra-conservative – values also wilts in the light of common sense.

What is particularly conservative about the story? Wanting to rescue children from a horrible situation? That’s just being humane, which isn’t an exclusively conservative value. Or isn’t meant to be.

As for the low-level, low-IQ controversy about Sound of Freedom allegedly supporting Qanon conspiracy theories – that’s a load of pure bulltwang.

There’s simply no mention of any such thing in the film, either explicitly or in code. Try looking for it and you’ll be wasting your time.

The idiocy of such claims is laid bare by how pre-production on Sound of Freedom began in 2015, while Qanon didn’t appear on the scene until 2017. Unsurprisingly, director Monteverde has dismissed any such links as nonsense.

In a dire sign of the polarized, politicized times in which we live, what has clearly occurred here is that people with axes to grind have seized upon Sound of Freedomto push their own agendas.

That the film has received support from a range of conservative figures – Elon Musk, Ben Shapiro, Donald Trump – marks it as a target for those on the opposite side of the aisle.

Having Mel Gibson credited as one of the film’s producers also attracts the ire of anyone who considers him the embodiment of all evil, making the film a handy means to go him and all that he stands for, his devout Catholicism still the source of deep resentment after many decades.

(It’s telling how hatred for Gibson does not extend to his fans or, it seems, his work. At the moment he is working with Caviezel on a sequel to Passion of the Christ and IMDB cites Gibson as the director of Lethal Weapon 5.)

Truly remarkable has been the film’s connection with audiences. Never mind Barbie, Oppenheimer, Avatar: The Way of Water, Mission Impossible 7, The Mario Bros. Movie and the other tentpoles of 2023.

When all the numbers are crunched Sound of Freedom shall emerge as the year’s most resounding hit – and its most unlikely.

At last count the independent film has taken more than $US178 million ($276m Australian) since its release across America on 4 July.

That doesn’t seem like much compared to the films in the billion-dollar club, yet what makes the success of Sound of Freedom so extraordinary is that it was made way back in 2018 for a paltry $14.5m – peanuts given how the average cost of a Hollywood film today is around $80m. (The film’s release was delayed by ownership changes. One dares speculate that had it been released back then, it would have come and gone without a whimper.)

On top of that the film was released with scant publicity or media support against studio blockbusters with eye-watering marketing budgets: $150m for Barbie; $140m for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny; $100m for M:I 7; $200m for Avatar 2.

Yet good old-fashioned word-of-mouth – still the most powerful influence in the movie business – has made Sound of Freedom the most discussed hit film of the year.

Those who are baffled by the film will remain baffled because there is nothing to be baffled about. It’s a good film with a good message that people are telling other people is good and therefore worth seeing.

No amount of hostile theorizing or derogatory commentary has been able to dent that.