Sound of Metal, 2020.
Directed by Darius Marder.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Kemp, Chris Perfetti, Hillary Baack, and Chelsea Lee.
A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
As much as Sound of Metal is about a drummer poorly coping with sudden deafness and the shot to the heart of potentially never being able to perform again, the lived-in experiences of a handicapped individual begrudgingly seeking psychological consolidation within a therapeutic group home (carrying out a mission of nudging him in the right direction to accept his unwanted disability) while on the verge of a breakdown expands on the universality of this character study with profoundly gripping results.
Maybe those looking for something specifically about heavy metal will feel betrayed, but those that prioritize the “sound” part of the title will be a captive audience towards director Darius Marder’s narrative debut (how a film this incredible is the work of fresh blood makes for an astonishing achievement, even if it does come with a story credit from proven auteur Derek Cianfrance who he collaborated with on the also terrific The Place Beyond the Pines, and co-writing from relative Abraham Marder) that is innovative in terms of sound design and how the manipulation of audio is utilized to service the story rather than a tantalizing gimmick that is stylistic visually but could have unwieldy been superficial in execution.
In a year that has seen an imbalanced scale of bad movies and good movies (obviously, because major distributors want to save their good movies for a day more optimistic on theatrical box office revenue), the common thread between the majority is that the movies a strong concept that’s mishandled. Sound of Metal cements itself as an outlier of that happenstance right from the opening, as Riz Ahmed’s tattooed and grungy Ruben puts on a hell of a drumming show alongside the band’s lead singer and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, bringing substantial emotional heft of her own even with less screen time, something an amateur director is prone to botching), shirtless and handsome with an intentional touch of the female gaze.
That last part is important to note as it’s the only time we get a view of Riz Ahmed shirtless with an aura of confidence and sexiness, or at least meant to titillate anyone sexually attracted to men. He’s a rock star, has a beautiful girlfriend, and while things might not be perfect financially (the couple tours in a cluttered RV), one can say he’s living one of many fulfilling American dreams. Then comes the unexpected loss of hearing; it could be because of constant exposure to thunderously loud music or an autoimmune disease kicking in, but the reasoning behind this abrupt loss of this function and any semblance of a cure is not the point. To Ruben, fixing it is all that matters, as not only are confidence and sexiness typically a direct (not the only) correlation, but it can also be a self-esteem killer for a disabled person.
More to the point, this new condition is threatening to rip away his greatest passion and hobby, one that he has made professional ambitions. Ruben’s world is crashing down, uncontrollably nervous at the thought of Lou leaving him as he is forced to cut off communication with her as he learns the ins and outs of living with his handicap at the aforementioned group home run by Joe (Paul Raci, nuanced with overflowing gentle compassion and humanity, doing right by deaf people that are actually portrayed by disabled actors, juxtaposing a tour de force performance with appreciated 100% authenticity). Restrained scenes such as Ruben banging drums on buckets surrounded by deaf children is both a coping mechanism for himself but a greater source of inspiration for ostracized youth, and it’s one of many beautiful pieces that poetically play with sound. Nevertheless, Lou promises to wait for him as long as he sticks to the routine and makes a genuine effort to not only rise above an unfair dealing of fate but to not be defined by his handicap.
And that right there might be the most important message a film centered on disabilities could ever give. Whether it’s exploring the decline in self-esteem, the constant denial that things will never be the same which reaches the height of addictive personality disorder (it’s mentioned often that Ruben is also four years clean from heroin, which is fine but also feels like an unnecessary rockstar trope that this movie doesn’t really need), the seemingly improbable odds of successfully physically adjusting (if he can, Ruben is promised money for an expensive surgery; an option that is handled with complexity and without judgment), and serious consideration of what’s best for his relationship and what Lou wants in life (something he, unfortunately, doesn’t always notice, marked by a scratching tic common in those that deal with anxiety whenever she feels afraid or uncomfortable speaking her mind).
Sound of Metal is also perfectly attuned to those moments where voice-to-text translation or sign language or reading lips is not enough to make a point. There’s a bit where Ruben overly exposes his insecurities to Lou, who at the time is communicating via pencil and paper, only to practically feel insulted by some of the things he’s implying will happen about the relationship because of his new disability. She slams the pencil down and vocalizes her strong thoughts even if he’s going to have trouble understanding her; some-heat of-the-moment statements can’t be verbalized into written words, but they’re going to have to be if Ruben is ever going to regain happiness. Simultaneously, there is no fault towards Lou; her emotional pain and empathetic outbursts are just as valid.
It’s also more than a film about music and disabilities; there is universal appeal. Roughly 7 years ago my physical mobility regressed (I was born with Muscular Dystrophy) to a degree where I lost the strength needed to do something as easy as pressing buttons on a PlayStation controller. Until that point, video games had also been my life alongside appreciating cinema. Thankfully, there are alternatives whether it’s as basic as watching someone else play or new options such as passively experiencing a game on Twitch using decades of knowledge to formulate opinions and gate-breaking game developers such as Naughty Dog offering an unprecedented amount of custom options specifically for those with disabilities. Still, the road to that acceptance is always challenging, and Sound of Metal dives into the damage it can potentially do on one’s psyche when something that has been a part of your identity is ruthlessly ripped away from you without remorse. It’s about adapting to one’s environment or wallowing in psychological pain. Sound of Metal is a tearjerker regardless, but anyone that can relate on a more personal level is going to be as wrecked as Ruben’s ears.
There are developments in the third act fleshing out Lou that feel undercooked even if it quickly comes to make a powerful point, but Sound of Metal confidently knows where these characters need to end up. The clever sound design shifts to groundbreaking in the final act, and the climactic scene is masterfully expressed in terms of body language and thematic poignancy. It’s a life-affirming, cathartic shot that most filmmakers could only dream of shooting.
Sound of Metal opens theatrically in the US on November 20 and will be available to all Amazon Prime members on December 4. Theatrical venues include the historic Music Box Theatre in Chicago.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com