In Sound of Metal, first-time narrative director Darius Marder introduces us to a world most have the luxury of never experiencing — losing the ability to hear.
But through immense craft and nuance, viewers become fully immersed in a newly deaf character’s life, forming an empathetic bond unlike most films in recent years.
Sound of Metal follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a small-time metal band, who is rapidly and quite unexpectedly losing his hearing. During a show, Ruben begins to experience a ringing sensation in his ears and partial hearing loss, but regains it a short while later. Thus begins the hardest battle of his life.
Riz Ahmed as Ruben in “Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios)
Throughout the film, Marder effectively evokes how closely our identity is tied to our senses and how they dictate our behavior and reactions to the world around us. For Ruben, music is his life. He’s dating Louise (Olivia Cooke), the only other member of the band, and they live in their Airstream RV as they tour around the country. When his hearing starts to fade with no signs of returning, Ruben goes into a tailspin. Adding tension and more depth to his struggle is the revelation that Ruben is a recovering heroin addict.
Ahmed’s thoroughly authentic performance is easily the best part of the film — no small accomplishment, considering there’s a lot to like here. His subtle delineation of the anxiety and fear of losing his hearing and falling victim to his old habits is completely engrossing.
In order to help the transition while also staying accountable, Ruben is taken by Louise to a recovery house where he can live and attend meetings with other addicts who are also deaf. This turn of events brings the reality of both struggles into focus, the idea of relapsing adds tension, especially when we see his behavior become more erratic as he continues to try and cope. It turns out hearing loss and addiction share some of the same stages — namely denial. Ruben spends his time looking for alternatives to avoid his noiseless fate and becomes consumed with getting a cochlear implant.
Paul Raci as Joe in “Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios)
At the recovery house, he finds a sponsor in Joe (Paul Raci), who becomes the shepherd helping Ruben become acquainted with his new way of life. Joe is both fatherly and hostile, doing his best to break through the walls Ruben has put up. Raci is fantastic in this role and, like Ahmed, is completely believable, which makes the characters’ connection all the more powerful. There are certainly moments in their interactions that are so raw and personal that it feels more like spying on real people than watching a film. Raci slips into this role as if he’s been mentoring deaf addicts his whole life.
Marder also co-write the film with his brother Abraham, his second such credit after penning 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines with director Derek Cianfrance. The two films share a similar DNA, and the idea of Marder directing this film seems natural, though I can’t help but imagine what this film would look like under Cianfrance’s confident direction. While the film is a strong directorial debut for Marder, there are several scenes towards the end, depicting Ruben embracing his new life, that feel somewhat unearned, as if we missed a scene or two between his resentment and revelation.
That’s nothing to be too picky about, though, as the film’s pros far outweigh its cons — especially its sound design, easily the best from any 2020 release. Far from merely a clever use of audio, Sound of Metal is an experience. We are fully undergoing the loss of hearing with Ruben, and it’s so immersive that you can’t help but feel just as frustrated and scared as him.
Overall, Sound of Metal is a deeply emotional and personal story of survival and understanding yourself and your place in the world. The performances from Ahmed and Raci are some of the year’s best — particularly Ahmed — and the film itself is an easy Top 10 pick.
5 out of 5