“Sound of Freedom” is being sold as a “conservative” thriller. It’s based on the true story of Tim Ballard, the former Department of 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 in the 19 years since he played the title role of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has been a go-to actor for the kind of faith-based projects 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 whole culture of liberalism is a racket to protect and cover up a cabal 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 4.) 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. That said, 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.