Sound of Metal

Written by Anna Harrison

85/100

About halfway through Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is given a sign name in American Sign Language: a hand curled to form a “C” held up beside the right eye. The reason this becomes Ruben’s sign name is obvious the second you see Riz Ahmed’s enormous brown eyes in action, so big and expressive they seem to swallow the screen. He looks, as one character remarks upon, a bit like an owl, a trait that makes it difficult to look away when Ruben appears on screen.

Sound of Metal follows Ruben, a recovering addict who replaced heroin with music and a girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke, with unfortunate bleached eyebrows for most of the film). As a drummer in a punk rock band with Lou, Ruben bombards his ears every night with loud guitar riffs and screeching, until one day he suddenly finds he cannot hear anything. Disoriented, distressed, Ruben tries to act like nothing has changed, and goes back onstage that night. Worried that he might relapse, Lou checks him into a facility for recovering addicts populated entirely by deaf people, run by the tough yet empathetic Joe, played by Paul Raci, who turns in an excellent, understated performance.

Ruben struggles without his music and without Lou; he can never bring himself to truly embrace his new identity, and flounders as he tries to avoid facing his situation head-on, finding inventive ways to keep his brain thinking about anything but his newfound deafness. Eventually, he begins to settle into a new life—learning ASL, teaching the drums to deaf children at the local school, and drawing raunchy tattoos for a friend—but no matter what he does, he cannot completely quiet the noise that remains in his head. He dreams of getting back to “normal,” and always remembers what he has lost even as he finds moments of joy in his new life. If the actual plot mechanics sound threadbare, that’s because they are, but the character work is rich.

As Ruben, Ahmed gives a nuanced and powerful performance, deftly portraying Ruben’s raw pain and rage while never drifting into melodrama. He is helped by first-time feature director Darius Marder (co-writer with his brother, Abraham, and Derek Cianfrance), who walks along a razor’s edge here with surety, avoiding pandering, easy answers and working hard to accurately portray sensitive topics without schmaltz. Ahmed’s best co-star, however, is not Cooke, but the entire sound department.

From the opening beats and screams of a punk rock song, the sounds immerse us. The whir of a blender, the drip of a coffee pot, and then, suddenly, a high-pitched ringing in the middle of bombastic drumming that drowns everything else out. Like Ruben, we are thrown into disarray, struggling to understand the world around us, straining to make out coherent noises through the fog. We slip and panic with Ruben. Sound flits in and out for the rest of the movie; sometimes we hear as Ruben does, sometimes we hear what he cannot, but always we are intensely aware of the sound or lack thereof. For those who have ever wondered—like me, back before I learned better—why “boring” sound editing and sound mixing are categories at the Academy Awards, here is your answer. 

It’s not a perfect movie; it has its lulls, and Lou, while an important presence, seems thinly sketched, and we are told that she is interesting rather than shown. But these quibbles do not detract too much from the film: Sound of Metal handles its quiet, personal story with grace, making us both yearn for chaos of noise and appreciate the stillness that comes with absolute silence.

Sound of Metal Trailer

You can watch Sound of Metal on Prime Video

You can follow Anna on Letterboxd

One thought on “Sound of Metal

  1. I love the fact that, from the reviewer’s perspective, this is more than a concert or drumming movie.
    It’s like the “Rocky” of metal: Highs, lows, victories and defeats.

    Like

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