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