Synopsis – A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
My Take – With the sensory organs playing an usually unrecognized important part in our everyday life, without any downplay, this latest Amazon release reflects on the loss and acceptance one has to go through when one of the five (see, smell, hear, taste, and touch) suddenly stops working.
However, what makes this debut feature from writer-director Darius Marder, who co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), which premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, a standout, is that it uniquely uses sound design not just to energize the visuals of the film, but as the primary storytelling tool itself to tell a beautifully emotional story of a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing.
Here, director Marder ingeniously chooses moments to live in the lead’s world, and then switches in between to the outside world in order for us to experience what our protagonist is going through. Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Riz Ahmed, the film results in being an auditory and emotional masterpiece, and indeed well worth watching.
Whether it’s the sound or lack thereof that keeps you engaged, you’ll be awestruck living in the world director Marder has built. With great acting, stellar technical aspects, and a message that’s rarely illuminated in film, this one is without a doubt deserves highlight in the upcoming awards season.
The story follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a four-year sober heavy metal drummer who makes for one half of the metal duo called Blackgammon along with his girlfriend and singer, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Seemingly living the perfect life, by living in a RV and driving across the country performing gigs. That is until, one day right before a performance, a persistent ringing begins in his ears, while an on-call doctor advises him to restrain from loud noises for some time, yet Ruben goes ahead with the performance, causing his hearing to drop altogether.
With transplant operation too expensive to cover, Lou, fearing that he may relapse, on the advice of his sponsor, convinces Ruben to join a deaf community led by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam War vet, who is convinced to help Ruben learn to accept his disability and live with it, rather than fight it.
From then on wards the film remains truly heartbreaking, constantly upsetting, and as resilient as Rueben’s will to continue being a musician. As one would expect, given the title, the film isn’t really about the music or Ruben’s career as a drummer, but about learning to let go of something you’ve thought yourself destined for. But most importantly, it firmly pushes the belief that being deaf is not a disability, and grapples that the idea is the struggle with which Ruben must contend with.
Being a love story at heart, the film also possess many heartbreaking scenes, with Rueben’s confession to Lulu being one of them. Communicating via notepads, words and writing, Lulu and Rueben begin a journey together that they both know could depart their love for something that has made them closer, and ultimately, who they are as people.
However, the film‘s greatest strength is its ability to immerse you Ruben’s world. Through visual cues and smart sound design where we shift in and out of Ruben’s ability of hearing, we feel what he’s feeling. Using very clever filming techniques, including cutting back and forth between regular dialogue and muffled ambience from Ruben’s perspective, director Marder‘s directorial choices are very confident and seasoned, providing audiences with a cinematic film-going experience.
Here, Nicolas Becker plunges the audience into a simulation of a deaf person’s auditory perception. Ruben’s hearing loss begins before a routine sound check. When the audio is cut completely the first time, you’re caught off guard just like Ruben. It sounds like the muffled noises you hear when you’re flying, or when you’re underwater.
With each minute, the confusion implodes in dread over the realization this may not be a passing episode. This adds to his anguish and sense of loss. We hear through his ears as the sound is withdrawn periodically to shroud us in his everyday reality. It transports us outside of our own experience. It’s a surreal experience using film in this way, using it as an effective tool to showcase the experience of learning to adapt and control one’s self in a time of change.
Additionally, the filmmakers put some real thought into not only portraying the world of Deaf people, but appealing to Deaf viewers as well. Subtitles and audio descriptions automatically appear on the screen, something Deaf viewers normally have to enable on home screens. They also put the audience in Ruben’s shoes in his initial days in the community, making no attempt to interpret sign language, a rare chance for those who can speak sign language to have a leg up on those who can’t.
The only flaw which I could easily point out from the film was its pacing. The screenplay spends an extraordinary amount of time establishing the routine of Ruben. What happens in his daily life, professionally and personally, are shown in a slow and detailed way. The detailing which acts like an unnecessary break especially in the third act of the film.
Without a doubt, Riz Ahmed, is the heart and soul of the film. Being one of the best actors working right now, Ahmed‘s performance here is gut wrenching, believable, and absolutely stunning to watch as you can do nothing but become engrossed in his acting and ability to make you feel exactly what his character is feeling. You can see the pain behind his eyes as he watches his dreams pass him by. The anger, the frustration, the hurt, never too far away as he deftly navigates emotionally complex scenes. Ahmed should be an instant lock for an academy award nomination for best actor.
Comparatively, Olivia Cooke has a somewhat thankless role, but is given a couple of well written sequences to showcase herself. In supporting roles, Paul Raci is marvelous and inspiring, while Lauren Ridloff and Matthieu Amalric are equally good. On the whole, ‘Sound of Metal’ is a spellbinding dramatic experience uplifted but its stellar technical aspects and Riz Ahmed‘s electrifying performance.
Directed – Darius Marder
Rated – R
Run Time – 120 minutes