Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct (aka Tone-Deaf) (2019)

There is a temptation, when it comes to Richard Bates Jr, to subscribe to the otherwise flawed notion of nominative determinism. After all, much as his full title literally signifies his juniority and his status as the latest in line to have inherited the family name, so too all his features – Excision (2012), Suburban Gothic (2014), Trash Fire (2016) and most recently Killer Instinct – focus on the way a younger generation has been scarred by membership of a family whose domestic dysfunction recalls, in different ways, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In other words, all his films feature intergenerational strife, transmitted trauma, and murder and madness to match that other, purely cinematic, Bates family. It is all there in the writer/director’s name.

Killer Instinct conforms to this pattern, with variations. Recently dumped, recently sacked thirty-something Olive Smith (Amanda Crew) has certainly been messed up by her family. “If you’re wondering why I’m not just bursting with joy,” she explains to her late father Michael (cult star Ray Wise, a Bates Jr regular) when his apparition visits her during an acid trip. “it’s probably because you killed yourself, and mum’s insane, and I’ve got this stack of student loans like a mile high, and I’m basically alone in the world and my ovaries are drying up.” Olive’s primal scene, shown right at the beginning of the film, was the piano recital she gave as a little girl, which her parents, distracted by another of Michael’s mental breakdowns, failed to attend. Michael’s subsequent suicide, and the retreat of Olive’s mother Crystal (Kim Delaney) to a hippy commune, have only left Olive feeling more abandoned and adrift. Sensitive to her vulnerability, nobody can quite bring themselves to tell tone-deaf Olive how terrible her piano playing is, and so how flawed is her dream, already stunted and bruised since childhood anyway, of becoming a professional musician.

While some of Olive’s troubles have emerged from the domestic environment of her childhood upbringing, the loans and aloneness are also recognisable as typically millennial woes – and in fact her biggest problem will turn out to come not from her own home, but from a stranger’s. For, needing a weekend break to recover from her sense of failure in LA, Olive rents an isolated house in Piru from its owner, the ageing widower Harvey (Robert Patrick). Harvey’s own unhappy home life – his grief at the suicide of his wife Edith and his disappointment in his now adult son David (Ronnie Gene Blevins) – has built over time into a deep-seated resentment of anyone David’s age, and a through-going hatred of present-day values. After all those years of barely contained rage against postmodern living, something in Harvey has finally snapped, and he now – when he is not addressing the camera directly with bitter diatribes about the decline of everything good in America – is planning to take a stand against everything that Olive represents by murdering her (and maybe taking down a few others along the way). Just the sight of her in an online photo holding up a placard that reads “This pussy bites back” is enough to convince Harvey that he has selected exactly the right target for all his conservative, woman-hating wrath – although perhaps he should have paid more attention to the words of the message that she was carrying.

Killer Instinct had its world première, then as Tone-Deaf (a much better title), at SXSW on the 10th of March, 2019. This was the same year, but some months before, the expression  “OK Boomer” – a sarcastically dismissive rejoinder to baby boomers’ typical derision and dismissiveness of millennials –  would become a popular meme, marking the moment when the younger heirs to a world of unstable employment, endless indebtedness and environmental apocalypse decided that they would no longer accept default criticisms from older white males who had secured their own comfort and success by leaving a legacy of woe to their successors. Now the gloves were well and truly coming off between the different generations, and millennials, long used to being stereotyped as lazy, entitled, hedonistic and unrealistically utopian, were finding their own stinging stereotype to use against any senior oppressors. 

Bates Jr’s film rode the very first crest of this zeitgeist, turning the boomer-vs-millennial conflict into a part witty, part nasty story of irreconcilably opposed perspectives and psychopathically snowballing microaggressions. Really, Harvey and Olive are not so very different. Both have had it hard, and are ruled by a sense of loss – but where Olive just wants to pick herself up and get on with her own life, Harvey wants to end everybody else’s, all in the name of reasserting the ethos of a past whose ‘good old days’ he has largely invented. The embodiment of monstrous patriarchy, Harvey is an unreconstructed misogynist and fantasist, indiscriminate only in his newly undertaken murder spree. For Harvey victimises people his own age as much as younger adults, men as much as women, and, in a bizarre act of ‘cultural appropriation’, he also improbably adopts a tomahawk as his weapon of choice. 

Harvey’s ‘grouchy old man’ ideology, spat at the camera in lengthy raves, is pure boomer, but Bates Jr avoids being overschematic in his presentation of this feud by allowing a much younger male character (Tate Ellington) to display the same woman-hating toxicity as Harvey, while also showing Olive’s own absent father as being very different from Harvey. Near the film’s end, Olive will take a leaf from Harvey’s book and will herself break the fourth wall by addressing the camera. It is a sly suggestion that, with time, she too and her contemporaries might grow up to be the cantankerous, unhinged, excessively nostalgic scourge of whoever comes up behind them. For now, though, she and her mother (who keeps a gun in the glovebox because “even the Sixties had a dark side”) are a model of reconciliation between the generations. Meanwhile Bates Jr’s dialogue, zingy as ever, keeps everything fresh and funny, as his super-smart satire skewers many of the contradictions of these – and all – times.

© Anton Bitel