Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Sound of Metal - Review

Life can be a fragile thing, constantly teetering on the edge of irreversible change. In Sound of Metal, that change comes in the form of a sudden hearing loss that damages the main character’s psyche, sobriety, and career all in one fell swoop. Life-altering events in film often play to such a broad audience, taking the easy route to emotional moments and the ever present attempts to tug on the audience’s heartstrings. However, Sound of Metal is different. It lives in the silence, in the small moments, and doesn’t miss a beat along the way.

The star of the show is Riz Ahmed playing Ruben, a heavy metal drummer in a band with his singer-girlfriend Lou, played by Olivia Cooke. Director Darius Marder and his co-writer (and brother) Abraham Marder waste no time beyond an introduction to get into the heart of the story. Minutes into the film, Ruben begins to notice his hearing has essentially vanished, later confirmed by the doctor who tells him that 80-90% of his hearing is already gone, and won’t be coming back. A certain problem for a musician, it’s exacerbated by his status as a recovering addict as well. While all this reads like a film that could fall into cliche, the work of the creatives behind it make it something truly special.

The obvious first step for a recovering addict who has suddenly lost his hearing is to find a place that can care for both issues. Insert Paul Raci. As the head of the facility where most of the film takes place, Raci is tasked with being the guidepost for Ruben’s journey. And while he reiterates time and again that he can’t fix what isn’t broken, Raci’s Joe shows attentiveness and kindness to Ruben along his journey of acceptance. Praise will rightfully be assigned to many elements of the film, but Raci’s performance will be the most underrated of the bunch.

Another element that really sells the state of Ruben’s mind from start to finish is the sound design. Marder frequently uses muffled or unintelligible sounds to place the audience firmly in the perspective of Ruben at any given moment. There are no tricks, no manipulation in the music, just silence. If Ruben can’t hear, then we can’t either. It’s an unrelenting tool, used at the start to experience Ruben’s panic and fear, and at the end to see the calmness wash over what was once a restless soul.

And then at the center is Riz Ahmed himself. It’s not shocking to learn that Ahmed studied deafness and learned to play the drums in the lead up to the film. And that dedication pays dividends with an emotional and deep performance that never feels false or forced. Ahmed handles the character with such care and empathy, getting through so many emotions with his eyes and body language alone, that Ruben is almost instantly relatable to the audience. All this work will almost undoubtedly pay off with his first Oscar nomination in a few months time.

Sound of Metal moves through its narrative with a sense of calm amongst the chaos. It all culminates with a moment of serenity, where the hissing sounds of a world heard through implants becomes too much, and Ruben embraces the silence, leaving a life behind that’s no longer sustainable. Where most films with similar ideas would stumble into the same dramatic beats we all know, Sound of Metal asks a more profound question: How can we adapt? And eventually, find the beauty and pain of acceptance. 

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