DISCLAIMER: Spoilers abound for Sound of Metal. Proceed with caution.
We’re fully entrenched in awards season, folks. I always look forward to fall/winter, because that’s when the crème de la crème of movies emerge. The pinnacles of filmmaking. So, when I was given the opportunity to screen Darius Marder‘s Sound of Metal, I seized it wholeheartedly. I’d heard whispers of potential Oscar buzz for lead actor Riz Ahmed, and that Marder’s directorial debut was nothing short of resplendent. Derek Cianfrance created the story while Marder and Abraham Marder penned the script.
You heard it here first (or second) — the whispers are true. Sound of Metal is a beautifully intimate portrait with Ahmed leading the charge.
Sound of Metal follows drummer Ruben Stone (Ahmed), who’s in a metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The pair are living the tour life in a rustic RV. Ruben moves through each day with routine and rigidity, and we later learn that he’s a recovering heroin addict. Unfortunately, Ruben begins to lose his hearing, and it’s not a gradual loss either. After some initial reticence, Ruben joins a community house spearheaded by a man named Joe (Paul Raci). Joe lost his hearing while serving in the Vietnam War. Now, he provides a haven for the Deaf community. He insists that being deaf isn’t a disability, but an intrinsic part of who he is. Joe tries to pass this on to Ruben, but the latter is hellbent on getting an expensive surgery to regain his hearing.
Eventually, Ruben relents and embraces Deaf culture. He learns ASL and even takes classes. Meanwhile, Lou moves to Paris and ignites a solo career. Ruben pines for her amid his tenure at Joe’s house. He ends up selling his RV and drummer gear to garner funds for his surgery. Later, he undergoes said surgery. However, Joe promptly gives Ruben the boot. The act goes against everything Joe taught Ruben — that deafness isn’t a disability. Embracing the silence, savoring the stillness, can be a refuge. Instead of fully accepting who he is, Ruben seeks to change himself.
After getting kicked out of Joe’s home, Ruben flies to Paris to reunite with Lou. He notices that his hearing implants are fraught with frenzied feedback and dissonance. In fact, he still struggles to hear those around him. After an emotional night with Lou, Ruben sneaks out and sets forth solo sans hearing implants. The film’s end finds Ruben sitting in stillness, which plays into the lesson imbued by Joe.
I really dug the fact that Sound of Metal opens with frenetic sound. We see Lou and Ruben performing a concert. Metal music is seldom shown in mainstream or indie films and, as a fan, I enjoyed this. Then, the ending is pure, unadulterated silence. Daniël Bouquet‘s masterful cinematography feels personal — intimate, really. The shots with Ruben and Lou dancing in their RV felt like a window to their souls. Almost as if I was peering into something too private. Bouquet manages to evoke that feeling throughout the film, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Another aspect that Sound of Metal absolutely knocks out of the park is inviting the audience into Ruben’s world. We hear what he’s hearing, which is very little. When his hearing starts to go, we hear muffled voices. Then, when Ruben gets his implants, we hear the discordant, jarring feedback that he’s hearing. We’re in his shoes. Sound of Metal is one of the few movies that truly allows the viewer to participate. You feel as if you’re part of the story.
While Sound of Metal would be a good film based on the above factors alone — the intimacy and audience involvement — Ahmed takes this flick to the stratosphere. It’s an outing that profoundly resonates with the soul. If he isn’t nominated for an award, I won’t do much about it, but I’ll be dreadfully disappointed. He easily gives one of the most transcendent, transformative performances of the year. He fully embodies Ruben, from physicality to vocal ticks to emotional breadth. I read that he studied ASL with Jeremy Lee Stone, who deserves an award for his work as well. Additionally, Ahmed took up the drums. He even listened to punk/metal music, which wasn’t a genre with which Ahmed was familiar. His studious preparation paid off in spades.
Standout moments for Ahmed include when Ruben attempts to work through his hearing loss by maintaining his normal life i.e. drumming, despite his doctor’s warning to the contrary. His breakdowns are violent and raw. They cut to the core. His final scene with Cooke also tugs at the heartstrings. Ruben thanks Lou for saving him. For helping him kick heroin to the curb. Conversely, Lou thanks Ruben for saving her. It’s a tender scene grounded in truth.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Paul Raci. He soars in this film. His best scene, hands down, is when Joe kicks out Ruben. The mixture of agony, torment and disappointment on his face is enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. Joe’s objective to help Ruben accept that deafness is part of him is spectacular to behold. It’s an understated, subtle performance that holds its own all the same.
Cooke also delivers as Lou. While her part isn’t nearly as prevalent as Ruben, she shines in every scene. Her chemistry with Ahmed is altogether heartwarming and gut-wrenching. Here are two people that try their damnedest to run away from who they are. After spending time apart and ultimately evolving, Ruben realizes that reverting to their old lifestyle would be toxic. He’s not the person he was at the start of the film and neither is she. At its core, Sound of Metal is about embracing change as it comes.
Sound of Metal pays homage to the Deaf community in a way that doesn’t feel hokey or disingenuous. The film utilizes actual deaf performers and uplifts them. It’s a rarity in films to see deafness through a positive lens. Frequently, it’s viewed as an obstacle or handicap. However, Sound of Metal drives home the fact that being deaf isn’t a disability — it’s just who you are. It’s a labor of love to an often ignored community.
Sound of Metal is a little indie film packed with a lot of heart. It’s a raw, intimate look into one man’s struggle with acceptance. A grappling of drastic change. Realizing that his life doesn’t revolve around chaotic noise but rather, he can find impactful meaning in stillness. Ahmed is simply glorious, proffering a nuanced, tenderhearted performance.
Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.