‘Sound of Metal’ Might Be 2020’s Best Movie (FILM REVIEW)


Rating: A+

Of the advice I foolishly failed to heed in my youth, the protection of my hearing is what I regret the most. A fan of music from my earliest days, I always listening to music at nothing less than full blast, piping the heaviest of metal and the hardest of hip hop directly into my ears at earth shattering intensity. By the time I started going to shows at the various punk venues of Dallas, I insisted on standing near as I could to the speakers, feeling the pulse pounding cacophonies as deeply as I could. This was obviously unsustainable.

Even as I grew older and started paying attention to rudimentary advice like wearing ear plugs to concerts, I never stopped blaring my music at full volume in the car and over headphones. For years it didn’t matter, but costs always come due, and I’m paying now via a not insignificant case of tinnitus. The ringing is constant; if I don’t know you’re speaking to me, there’s a solid chance I won’t hear you. And god help me if I want to watch television without closed captions.

Mild though my case of hearing lost may be, it has a not insignificant effect on my life. We don’t tend to fully appreciate how our senses connect us to the world and our loved ones. Life’s simplest pleasures are ones that involve oneness with our tribes and our surroundings, and so often we fail to appreciate how listening to the winds blow or hearing our lover’s voice can bring us the most basic sense of peace. And I’m one of the lucky ones. My hearing loss may be bad but it’s not insurmountable. I don’t need implants or hearing aids; I just live life with a constant companion who quietly but insistently screams “eeeeeeeeeeee” into both of my hears.

But the fear that it will get worse is ever present. It’s part of the reason I gave up reviewing concerts; even with earplugs, the damage I’ve done to my ears is such that too many more concerts could have devastating consequences. And so it was beyond easy to identify with the plight of Ruben (Riz Ahmed) in Sound of Metal, the debut feature from co-writer/director Darius Marder.

There’s an immediate sense of the narrative weight of Sound of Metal from the film’s opening moments, which show Ruben behind the drum kit on stage with his girlfriend and lead singer, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Together, the two form Blackgammon, a kind of post-punk/metal noise band scrounging their way across the country in a battered RV. Right as they’re on the cusp of breaking through the underground, however, Ruben’s hearing abruptly stops. Thrust into the world of total deafness, Ruben must learn how to adjust his perspective and wants in order to come to terms with his new reality.

Ahmed gives the performance of his career as Ruben, beautifully capturing the fear and anger of losing one of most precious and intimate of senses. Even in moments of quiet contemplation, you can see the sadness burning furiously behind Ruben’s eyes. Ahmed channels untold depths of remorse for his portrayal which is easily one of the year’s best.

It balances well with the script, co-written by Marder and his brother Abraham working from a story by The Light Between the Oceans scribe Derek Cianfrance. In another context, it wouldn’t be hard to hate, or at least be wary of, Ruben. He’s the embodiment of old school punk mentality, evinced by the “Please Kill Me” tattoo hastily carved into his chest amongst a number of other clearly amateur designs. He is a hardass punk, and lives his life accordingly. The script, however, manages to plumb the humanity from Ruben and his situation.

At no point does Marder attempt to cast judgment on Ruben for his lifestyle and choices. Rather, he evinces empathy for the situation and takes inside the devastating world of sudden sensory loss. That Ruben is a drummer only increases the tension. This is more than his life and livelihood at stake. This is his very essence, the core of his being. The loss of his hearing puts Ruben on a collision course with destiny that forces him to confront himself and his dreams in ways he never imagined. The result is a starkly emotional, human tale that asserts itself as one of the year’s absolute best.

Even on a technical level Sound of Metal soars. The visceral sound design from Nicolas Becker (who previously worked on Arrival and Gravity) takes us directly into the world of one who’s lost their hearing. Becker’s work gives us a subjective glimpse at life with sudden hearing loss, and the effect is deeply affecting. Becker fades us in and out of objective and subjective realities, creating jarring juxtapositions that allow us to experience Ruben’s life and its contrast in ways that serve to heighten the emotionality of Marder’s script and Ahmed’s performance.

The achievement here is profound on every level, making Sound of Metal must see material. From Ahmed’s raw, emotional performance to Becker’s nuanced sound design, it’s a true cinematic revelation that showcases the kind of craft and narrative experience that only film is capable of achieving. In turns heartbreaking and joyous, it’s enough to make you appreciate your own senses, even ones like much which, while dulled, are still important. More than that, however, it’s a beautifully made insight into the world of sensory loss and how we find our way forward after catastrophe. Simply put, Sound of Metal is nothing short of a knockout.

Sound of Metal is now playing in select theaters. It premieres on Amazon Prime on December 4.

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