Synopsis: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Darius Marder
Running Length: 120 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: For years growing up I had that sweet Walkman with the fuzzy headphones that made listening to music great but let in a ton of outside noise. At the time, it didn’t matter to me because this was years before noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds so I’d wrap that easily warped wire around my larger than average head and let the sound flow right into my ears. I wanted it loud…loud enough to hear every word. When I did get my first set of headphones that went inside the ear, I’d press them so far in they acted like an ear plug because…I wanted it loud. I listened to the music in my car at max volume, the TV was cranked up, everything was loud loud loud…my poor parents, neighbors, and friends. Then I went to a concert at a small club for a popular band and for some reason at this venue the sound reverberated in a way that just threw me for a loop. I’d been to concerts before and heard seriously amplified sound…but nothing like this. My ears rang for weeks after, blocking out voices and causing me to strain to hear anything. I started to learn to get good at reading lips because I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Miraculously, over time, my hearing returned but that was officially it for my flirting with loss of hearing and ever since then I’ve been overly cautious about how sound affects my environment.
The opening moments of Sound of Metal (from Amazon Studios, now available to stream via Prime Video) gave me real anxiety as I watched Reuben, a punk-metal drummer for rising band Blackgammon keeping up with lead singer/girlfriend Lou as she scream-sings her way through one of their crowd-pleasing metal anthems. The deafening music is nearly hypnotic, not in anything purposefully lyrical but in the way Reuben (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is following along and, eventually, in how we start to see small hints he’s noticing something slightly off in himself. Director Darius Marder spends the next two hours following Reuben on his journey of self-discovery, beginning with a diagnosis that could limit and watching him navigate roadblocks of his own making. Far from your typical ‘overcoming disability’ type feel-good film, Sound of Metal still has a tremendous amount of heart and deeply felt soul and its at its all-time best when no words are spoken at all.
When Reuben suddenly experiences a loss of hearing the morning after an intense Blackgammon gig, he leaves a note for Lou (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) in the RV they’re traveling on tour in and finds a local doctor that can see him. Told he has done irreparable damage to his hearing with less than 30% remaining, without expensive cochlear implants he will soon be completely deaf. Unable to make it through the next scheduled show, Reuben admits to Lou what’s going on and fearing her former-user boyfriend will relapse due to this debilitating news she helps him find a safe space to learn about being deaf in a controlled environment. Originally hesitant to be away from the only person that’s truly loved him, Reuben’s hand is eventually forced into joining a community of deaf recovering addicts run by Joe, a Vietnam vet and former alcoholic.
Played by Paul Raci, Joe’s tough love approach may not be anything new by the standards of this type of filmmaking but in Raci’s hands (literally) and through the script by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham (who also composed the music with sounds-designer Nicolas Becker) the role becomes the key puzzle piece that was missing in getting Reuben’s life back on track. Not just in terms of learning how to live as a member of the deaf community but in living a fuller life using his natural talents to bring out the good in others. Joe sees that in Reuben, fosters it, encourages it, and asks him to join the movement in helping it continue to grow. The crux of Sound of Metal is what Reuben chooses to do with this new world that waits for him and very much wants him to be a part of it. Does he want this new life in his community, a community that feels they are whole as they are…or does he feel like he needs his hearing to be “fixed” and rejoin Lou who has done some soul-seeking of her own after returning to France to live with her father (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace)?
This is a film of endless gifts, starting with the performances offered by the three leads. Ahmed’s work has consistently been strong but it’s at a totally different level, full of body and spirit. Training for six months on the drums as well as learning ASL, it’s hard to fathom the movie was shot in just four weeks. Even if her part is minor and acts as starkly contrasting bookends, Cooke too is an actor that never fails to bring something interesting to her appearances and whether she’s letting loose as a rock banshee or displaying a softer tone crooning en français with her dad, her energy is always vibrant and palpable. The chemistry between the leads might be a tad off, reading more like good friends and bandmates that soulmates but several of their interactions feel like good examples of character improv done right. The supporting players, a mixture of adults and children, are pulled from the deaf community and are impressively naturalistic in what is the screen debut of most.
Sound of Metal’s secret stealth weapon is Raci’s unforgettable performance as Joe. At first, you aren’t sure how much he’ll factor into the story but once he’s locked in place you recognize just what he’ll come to mean in the grand scheme of what Marder is going for. Raci delivers in each scene, showing a raw talent for off-the-cuff interaction that is refreshingly straightforward. Raci gives Joe could have been a simple repeat of so many other performances it resembles but there’s a lived-in quality and world-weariness in Raci’s eyes that you can’t fake. It’s almost as if Marder and the crew just happened to find the exact character they had written live in living color. Count on this performance, as well as Ahmed’s, getting to the very final talks when those end of the year award nominations start coming out – both are well deserved nominees.
There’s a bit of a full circle feeling behind the scenes with Sound of Metal. In 2012, Darius Marder had the original story idea for The Place Beyond the Pines and would go on to co-write the screenplay with the director of that film, Derek Cianfrance. Years later, Cianfrance was working on the idea for Sound of Metal but wound up abandoning the movie, eventually passing it to Marder who would write and direct it. From its incredible sound design (give Becker the Oscar right now, I mean, right now) to its unflinching way of showing the frustration and fear someone losing their hearing experiences, Sound of Metal excels in its sincerity and follows it through to the bitter (sweet) end. One of the true highlights of film-watching in 2020. Don’t you dare miss it.