Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Sound of Metal (2020)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Today I'll be talking about one of this year's Best Picture nominees (Hey look at that, I'm topical for once!), the intimate, poignant drama Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer who loses his hearing and has to essentially start his life over.  Directed by Darius Marder in his feature film debut, Sound of Metal opens on Ruben, the drummer of a metal duo called Blackgammon.  His girlfriend Lou is the band's singer/guitarist, and the pair lives in a mobile home, touring the country from club to club.  Blackgammon seems to be gaining traction, as we see them on the cover of numerous metal magazines and their trailer is full of expensive recording equipment.  But then one day Ruben's hearing suddenly becomes a garbled hum and he can't make out people's words or hear music properly.  After some tests, a doctor informs him he's lost 70-80% of his hearing and it will quickly get worse.  His options are to quit music altogether and try to preserve what's left, or have cochlear implants put in, a surgery that will cost anywhere from $40-80k.  Lou, fearing the former heroin addict Ruben will relapse, convinces him to check into a halfway house for the hearing impaired.  It's here that the bulk of the film takes place, as Ruben learns how to live with his deafness and connects with the other members of his new community.  

Along with its central performances, Sound of Metal is an exercise in restraint.  This material could've easily lent itself to melodramatic After-School Special excess but Marder wisely keeps things understated and internalized.  Riz Ahmed does so much acting with his eyes I think each of them should've earned their own Oscar nod.  His performance is tragic but not in the way you'd expect; Ruben hides behind a wall of metal guy machismo (As a metal musician myself I can relate), working hard to convince everyone around him he's got this, as if to convince himself.  In the film's third act he's faced with an austere, disheartening finality, and again Ahmed conveys most of Ruben's regret non-verbally.  This is sure to be his starmaking performance.  
But equally touching for me was veteran actor Paul Raci as Joe, the leader/administrator of the halfway house.  Joe is a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing during the war and turned to alcohol, forsaking his marriage and career before getting clean and working with other deaf addicts.  He becomes a mentor and father figure to Ruben, attempting to teach him to view his hearing loss not as a disability but simply as a new way of life with which to become acclimated, to truly find peace in the silence.  Ruben's first task on the chore whiteboard is simply "Learn to be deaf."  As Ruben grows into his new life, working well with deaf kids at a local school, Joe feels genuine pride in his progress and offers him a permanent job at the compound.  But Ruben's primary goal is still to have the surgery and go back to his previous life, leading to Raci's best and most affecting scene as he confronts Ruben about his choices.  Raci brings an authenticity to the role, having grown up with deaf parents; his very real compassion for people with deafness shines through in this role.

Perhaps just as effective as the performances though is the sound design in this film; as Ruben's hearing goes, we're thrust into his auditory point of view.  Dialogue becomes an incoherent blob of noise over a low rumble, and we become just as disoriented as Ruben.  The film skillfully jumps in and out of this aural state, alternating between keeping us informed and letting us experience Ruben's condition.  Later when his situation changes we're again treated to hearing what he hears, making his disillusionment that much more palpable.

Stripped to its essence, Sound of Metal is a vehicle for the audience to experience the upheaval of sudden deafness, and on that level it succeeds in spades.  From the terrifying bewilderment of Ruben's initial loss to his denial and resentment at his way of life being taken away, to his journey finding peace in the silence, the film can be read as a parable about any kind of loss and the grief associated with it.  Everything is temporary, particularly the frail outer shell of flesh we call the human body, and Sound of Metal is a profound, sometimes anguished reminder of that fact.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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