A film review by Craig J. Koban December 22, 2020, 



2020, R, 121 mins.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben  /  Olivia Cooke as Lou  /  Paul Raci as Joe  /  Lauren Ridloff as Diane  /  Mathieu Amalric as Richard Berger  /  Tom Kemp as Dr. Paysinger  /  Chris Perfetti as Harlan  /  Hillary Baack as Hannah  /  Chelsea Lee as Jenn

Directed by Darius Marder  /  Written by Darius and Abraham Marder, from a story by Derek Cianfrance

I remember something that the late Roger Ebert once said about the truly great movies being like empathy machines: They allow for us to live vicariously through the lives of different people and grown to understand where they come from, what drives them, and what forces either propel them forward or hold them back.   

I could think of no other movie from this past year that fit this description more perfectly than Darius Marder's intoxicating and masterful SOUND OF METAL.  His debut feauture film - co-conceived by Derek Cianfrance, who worked with Marder before on THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, one of the best films of the last decade - tells a story of compelling simplicity: A heavy metal musician begins to tragically lose his hearing, which forces him on a journey towards learning to healthily live with it.  Not only does SOUND OF METAL feature a career defining performance by Riz Ahmed, but it also paints a fascinating and inspirational portrait of the larger deaf community that's very rarely, if ever, given much screen time in mainstream cinema.  There have been past films to feature deaf characters, but virtually none of them examined this condition with as much thoughtfulness and sensitivity as SOUND OF METAL, which proudly displays these people not as sufferers of a disability, but rather as people that have learned to cope and live fully actualized lives.  Beyond that, Marder's film hones in on themes of the inherent difficulties of recovery from personal trauma and moving forward from that with a sense of hope, and it spoke to me in surprisingly potent ways. 

Ruben (Ahmed) is a gifted and dedicated drummer for a hard edge punk band called Blackgammon, which he heads up with girlfriend lead singer in Lou (Olivia Cooke).  The pair spend endlessly days driving from one town to the next in their RV searching for the next venue to play in, and in the process they have developed a cult following from the sheer seismic visceral power of their work (they play loud and hyper aggressively).  During one tour Ruben begins to notice that something is just...off...about his hearing.  What initially sounds like water plugging his canals quickly morphs into something more alarmingly muffled.  Deeply concerned - and with a growing realization that he's even beginning to lose any ability to hear people talk - Ruben seeks out medical advice, and it's revealed to him that he's very quickly going deaf, which has a lot to do with being exposed to chronically loud noises from his stage shows.  Going deaf represents a nightmare scenario for the understandable distressed Ruben, seeing as a sense of hearing is crucial for him to continue on with his musical career.   

All of this news hits Lou hard as well, which causes her great concerns for her partner's mental well being (being a former drug and alcohol addict, she fears that he could relapse as a form of escape or release).  Ruben has his eyes set on a very expensive cochlear implant surgery that might give him back some of his hearing, but cash flow is a serious issue.  Thinking that there's no other option, Lou decides to check Ruben into a rehab center for the hearing impaired, which is overseen by the tough minded, but kind spoken Joe (a wonderful Paul Raci).  Joe offers Ruben a place to recovery safely and learn how to live a life as a deaf person, but he must fully commit and temporarily abandon his past life (that includes separating from Lou and turning in his cell phone).  Ruben begrudgingly agrees to Joe's terms, even though he sees this rehab clinic as a minor stepping stone to getting out, earning some quick cash, and obtaining his much sought after surgery.  Even though his time at the clinic is rough early on as he tries his best to acclimate to his new life of silence, he begins to see the larger deaf community around him wearing their condition like a badge of honor and being able to maintain lives of happiness and fulfillment.  As Ruben begins to learn the ropes and get comfortable, the call of the outside world soon beacons and threatens all of the progress he has made. 



It's this middle section of SOUND OF METAL that is its most enthralling and pitch perfectly rendered, especially in showing Ruben's fish out of water journey with Joe and his rehab compound, where the former constantly reiterates a honorable platitude of deafness being something that never needs "fixing."  If anything, Joe and his team try to teach Ruben "how to be deaf."  Joe himself is an intriguing character with his own back story: He's a Vietnam vet that lost his hearing in the war and now wages a different type of personal war at home against the stigmas levied on deaf people.  Watching the initially uncertain and frightened Ruben come out of his outsider shell of self loathing and segue into into a productive deaf person capable of sign language represents SOUND OF METAL's real heart and soul.  As Ruben starts to healthily write his thoughts down in his journal, or spend time with deaf children, or just finding ways to gain inner peace and tranquility you really gain a sense that there is light at the end of this tunnel of darkness.   

Most crucially and alluded to earlier, SOUND OF METAL never asks us to feel sorry for deaf people, but rather to respect and understand them as valuable and dynamic people filled with the same drives and desires as anyone else.  So much of this film feels so fully lived in and credible, almost with the aura of a documentary at times.  I also admired how Marder never makes Ruben a squeaky clean lead character.  It's ultimately sad that a musician loses one of their most vital senses, but Ruben is presented with multiple flaws and troubling layers that helps avoid him from being propped up for shameful audience pity.  It also would have been deceptively easy for SOUND OF METAL to take a sanctimonious, PATCH ADAMS approach to the material, one where the power and determination of the human spirit can trump just about any roadblock or disability.  For as much progress as Ruben makes in the course of the story, he also makes deeply selfish choices that alienate him from those that have been so desperate to assist him.  It's interesting to see this film's take on the whole nature of surgical "fixes" for deafness, and Ruben's stubborn desire to get "fixed" at any cost - despite his healthy rehab progress - greatly frustrates his mentor in Joe, who perceives such surgeries as invasive and counterproductive to his whole mantra of living with deafness.  SOUND OF METAL, rather thankfully, never takes the road most easily traveled with its characters and underlining material, and as Marder's screenplay takes us into its third act and post-rehab life for Ruben it rarely goes down any predictable paths. 

This all brings us to Riz Ahmed, who has always been a quietly moving and powerful actor (his supporting turn opposite of Jake Gyllenhaal in NIGHTCRAWLER might be one of the most overlooked performances of recent memory).  The London born rapper/actor really goes full dedicated method with his character (he spent several months learning ASL and drumming in order to look effortlessly credible in both extremes).  One of the inherent challenges of playing Ruben is to find the right balance between emotional devastation and rage inducing fury, and Ahmed never overplays it to histrionic Oscar baiting levels.  There are so many scenes of silence as we witness Ruben learning to accept it in his new and uncertain world, and Ahmed sells such moments with graceful poise and grounded authenticity.  No more is this apparent in the film's final bravura scene that ends Ruben's tale on a moment of well earned serenity; he starts to truly grasp what's in store for him.  This is one of the pre-eminent performances of 2020. 

The sound design in this film deserves special commendation in closing this review, which goes to great lengths to put us squarely in the headspace of Ruben as he begins to experience the alarmingly quick deterioration of his hearing.  We hear muted sounds, garbled conversations, and so forth.  When we move outside of Ruben's limited auditory perception of the world and back to how it sounds for non-deaf people it's nearly like sensory overload to viewers.  This is all tied to the core themes of SOUND OF METAL of a man learning to love the intimate sound of silence, something that far too much of us probably take for granted.  It's a real challenge to cement viewers in a world involving a character whose career was steeped in deafening musical extremes that then has that existence snatched away from him in a heartbeat, leading him into freefall mode.  In many respects, there are no easy paths for this damaged person, other than to accept that life often throws unexpected curveballs at us that, when properly driven to, can be swung at leading to a hit...but we have to want to make it to first base.  SOUND OF METAL reaches a deeply moving sense of closure that wisely finds a middle ground of acknowledging that the ability to hear is an unappreciated gift, but that losing it is not a dead end curse.  Even the most tormented of minds can find ways to cleanse their souls.  

And yeah, this film is a superb empathy machine.  No question. 

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