‘Sound of Freedom’ Review: Solid Thriller About Child Sex Trafficking

“Sound of Freedom” is being sold as a “conservative” thriller. It’s based on the true story of Tim Ballard, the former Homeland Security Special Agent who has devoted himself to fighting child sex trafficking, and who took his crusade private when he founded Operation Underground Railroad, with backing from Glenn Beck. The movie stars Jim Caviezel, who ever since he took on the title role of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” 19 years ago, has been a go-to actor for the kind of faith-based projects that the vast majority of Hollywood stars steer clear of. Wearing a trim dark beard and coppery blond hair, Caviezel plays Ballard as a beatific G.I. Joe meets George C. Scott in “Hardcore” meets an avenging Jesus.

The movie has a Christian undercurrent that occasionally becomes an overcurrent, as when Ballard explains why he’s fixated on the crime of trafficking: “Because God’s children are not for sale.” “Sound of Freedom” has been heavily marketed on right-wing media, like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, and — one of the grand subtexts of all of this — in taking on the issue of the horrific criminals who kidnap and traffic children, the film could be seen as adjacent to the alt-right paranoia that was originally stoked by 4Chan and QAnon: the wing-nut conspiracy theory about a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor being a front for a pedophile ring, extending into the larger conspiracy theory that says that the culture of liberalism is a racket to protect and cover up the actions of pedophiles.  

All of that, let’s be clear, is insane nonsense. Yet let’s assume that, like me, you’re not a right-wing fundamentalist conspiracy theorist looking for a dark, faith-based suspense film to see over the holiday weekend. (The movie opens July 3.) Even then, you needn’t hold extreme beliefs to experience “Sound of Freedom” as a compelling movie that shines an authentic light on one of the crucial criminal horrors of our time, one that Hollywood has mostly shied away from. The film was completed in 2018 and then shelved by Disney (after it acquired 20th Century Fox, the film’s original studio). It was finally bought back and is now being distributed independently.   

How many movies and TV shows have we all seen about drug trafficking? Too many. Child sex trafficking, by contrast, isn’t a subject that lends itself to “entertainment.” But as “Sound of Freedom” informs us, it’s the fastest growing international criminal network the world has ever seen. A closing title states — accurately — that there are more people enslaved now, by sex trafficking, than there were when slavery was legal. And the nightmare lived by captured children is unspeakable, unimaginable…and all too real. Let’s be clear: This matters more than the cocaine or opioids industry.

One of the purposes of a movie like “Sound of Freedom” is to sound the alarm, in the way that a dramatic feature film can do and that journalism often can’t. It takes us into the forbidden zone. It taps our primal emotion of empathetic terror. Yet “Sound of Freedom” isn’t a work of art like Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-Ever” (2002), the one great movie that’s been made about sex trafficking. (No one saw it. But it’s extraordinary.) This is a genre thriller. Yet it’s an urgent and honest one, and Caviezel gives his most committed performance since “The Passion of the Christ.” He’s seasoned now, with the smoldering aura of a more sensitive Clint Eastwood. He knows how to underplay the rage and despair, and how to make the drama of going undercover into something lifesize.     

In a sequence that’s suck-in-your-breath devastating, Paul (Eduardo Verástegui), a single father in Honduras, agrees to let his 11-year-old daughter, Rocio (Cristal Aparicio), and her 7-year-old little brother try out for a music competition show that’s being overseen by Katy-Gisselle (Yessica Borroto Perryman), who is professionally poised and glamorous, and therefore seemingly trustworthy. He’s instructed to drop the kids off at an apartment, where there are a dozen other child contestants inside, and to return a few hours later. When he does, the place is dark and abandoned. He’s been fooled. And those kids are about to enter hell.

Special Agent Ballard, meanwhile, is in the midst of entrapping his umpteenth Internet consumer of child porn. Ballard has been on the beat for 12 years and has captured some 280 pedophiles. But what haunts him isn’t just the awfulness of these crimes, the horrific videos he has to watch. It’s that he’s catching culprits without rescuing the children.

He wins the trust of his latest sicko by taking him out of his holding cell and implying that he himself is also a secret pedophile. In this way, Ballard is able to discover a link in the trafficking chain, and he launches an operation to nab the trafficker. When he does, at the Mexican border, he saves the young boy from that opening scene.

But what about the boy’s sister? She’s still trapped in the nightmare. And this eats away at Ballard. It becomes his mission, his obsession. He must save her. Ballard and his wife, Katherine (Mira Sorvino), have six kids. Rocio, in the film’s Christian view, becomes an extension of their family. All children are God’s children, and are therefore all of our children. Or something.

But this is faith-based piety laid over a situation that didn’t need it. Ballard has made a decision to go after the traffickers themselves, a nearly impossible task that’s not backed by the Homeland Security apparatus; his boss gives him one week and 10 grand. But as he travels down to Colombia, the film comes alive as an undercover thriller.

It helps that Ballard’s central contact is Vampiro, an American who used to launder drug money for the cartels, and is played by the great actor Bill Camp as a skeevy expatriate who’s like a character you can imagine Hemingway coming up with if he’d lived into the 1970s. Vampiro, after spending time in prison, has been atoning for his life of sin, but he’s still steeped in it; Camp makes him an ebullient sleaze who’s still connected to the worst people you can imagine. Ballard starts to work with him, and they come up with the idea of launching a fake members-only club for wealthy pedophiles as a way of entrapping the local traffickers, who include Katy-Gisselle, a former beauty queen. For a while, the movie becomes the grungiest “Miami Vice” episode you ever saw.

But Ballard must ultimately travel down river, à la “Apocalypse Now,” into the jungles of the Nariño Province, a rebel stronghold where the chief rebel, named Scorpio, has made Rocio his slave. Ballard and Vampiro are posing as U.N. doctors; that’s how they gain entrée to the rebel camp, which is also a cocaine factory farm. The director, Alejandro Monteverde, stages this sequence without hyping the danger. It’s not a glorified “Rambo” movie or a Netflix thriller pretending to be serious. When the deliverance we’ve been seeking arrives, it feels earned. In a conventional pulp way, we’ve glimpsed the heart of darkness. We’ve seen something about our world that makes the desire to “take action” seem more than an action-movie gesture.

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