REVIEW: Sound of Metal (2020)

Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed in SOUND OF METAL — Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Directed by Darius Marder — Screenplay/Story by Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, and Derek Cianfrance.

If I’m not mistaken, Darius Marder’s first narrative feature film, Sound of Metal, was originally slated to be released in Danish theaters in December of 2020. However, when all of Denmark’s theaters were then ordered to close due to another lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the film was basically put in some sort of limbo. This week, on April 12th, 2021, I finally got the chance to watch one of my most anticipated films of the 2020 awards season, when it was released on Amazon Prime Video. In short, it was definitely worth the wait.

Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal follows Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer, who is in a band with his girlfriend Lou (played by Olivia Cooke), the band’s singer. They live together in an RV, which they use to go on tour. One night, while on tour, Ruben slowly starts to lose his hearing. This sudden hearing loss startles him, and so he goes to the doctor to find out what can be done to help him regain his hearing. However, much to his frustration the doctor tells him that there isn’t an easy fix, and that he ought to eliminate loud noises, since his hearing may deteriorate rapidly if he doesn’t seek treatment.

Ruben is keen on getting an operation that would give him cochlear implants, but it is not covered by insurance and, moreover, he cannot afford the operation on his own. Ruben disregards the doctor’s suggestions and goes right back on stage to perform with his girlfriend and band. However, he soon discovers that he struggles to keep up with his girlfriend on-stage as a direct result of his hearing. Angry, frustrated, and in denial, he tells Lou about his predicament, and she is immediately distraught.

Although he initially refuses to, he eventually reluctantly agrees to join a rural shelter for the hearing-impaired led by Joe (played by Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic and Vietnam War veteran. Ruben soon makes it his goal to learn American Sign Language, to learn to cope with his hearing loss, and to be able to afford the cochlear implants that he hopes will make it possible for him and Lou, who cannot stay with him at the shelter, to go back on tour and continue their lives as musicians and partners.

You’ve probably heard the expression that something in a movie is so rich and detailed that it is almost like its own ‘character’ in the narrative. Often the phrase is used to describe a location, like a castle, or something like that, but, in the case of Sound of Metal, the sound design is its own character. The sound design is so good that it basically stands right there next to Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed’s performances as one of the true highlights of the movie.

There is a lot of focus on the auditory perspective of Ahmed’s main character, and the way the sound transitions from loud noises to distortion to the almost unintelligible hum and back to complete silence can send a chill down your spine. A lot of work is done in the early parts of the film to establish the sound of Ruben’s RV and to establish how music is not just a passion for him, instead it is actually almost the way he and Lou express their feelings for one another.

Of course, that now brings me to the performances. I want to start by talking about Paul Raci. I don’t think his performance is flashy, but I do think it, like Ahmed’s, is a nuanced performance. Supporting actors often have a great ‘Oscar scene,’ so to speak, and that is also true for Raci, whose honesty and disappointment just shatters you in a pivotal scene towards the end of the film. He moved me to tears. Riz Ahmed has obviously received a lot of praise and awards attention and it is easy to see why. His performance is extraordinary. His frustration and desperation is palpable, and, in his great scene with Paul Raci, there really are times when this desperation almost looks like an addiction, which, I believe, Raci’s character accurately points out. It is one of the great leading man performances of 2020.

While I actually do think that Marder’s film shows a lot of love for the hearing-impaired, I have read one or two articles that sum up some of the issues that members of the deaf community have had with the film. I think there are some very valid criticisms here and there, and I would advise you to seek out those perspectives as they, in a way, are almost invaluable to a proper understanding of the effect of the film. On a personal note, the one major issue that I had with the film was that it, sort of, felt like elements of the story were slightly rushed. I think it is very clear and obvious that the film is working with a structure inspired by the five stages of grief, and, while I actually think that structure really works for the film, it feels like the film fast forwards through some of Ruben’s struggle at the shelter.

All in all, I think that Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, his first narrative feature film as a director, completely lives up to its reputation. I think there is a universality in the theme of ‘appreciating stillness,’ and I think that anyone can understand the main character’s reasoning for fighting desperately to preserve the life that he knows he cannot regain. This is a powerful film that made me think a lot about how people around the world ought to appreciate not just stillness but the tiny details of everyday life. I think that the sound design really makes an impression on you, and when you pair that kind of attention to detail with the strong performances delivered by especially Raci and Ahmed, then you have a pretty special film.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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