Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal ★★★★

Drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) discovers that he’s gradually losing his hearing, and has to learn how to adapt to this new situation, in Darius Marder’s drama co-starring Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff and Mathieu Amalric.

The film is an absorbing study of how sound (and lack thereof) defines us, examining how Ruben has to adapt to his way of living to accommodate this change in his perception. The sound design is key to this, using unconventional and deliberately jarring sequences of how the protagonist hears to allow us to understand what he’s going through.

These moments of distortion are all the more powerful in their sparseness, used to punctuate the narrative in key moments that reflect his mental state at that particular time. This technique is used especially in the scenes featuring music, allowing us to hear both his lack of perception and a hearing normative version of events, which underscores his initial sense of frustration and isolation from the outside world.

It might have been potentially interesting to have even more of the film from this perspective, as this could have provided a fuller picture of what he’s going through, although I think that only using it at crucial point stops it from feeling gimmicky.

The film crucially doesn’t try to make the audience “be deaf” for the duration of the runtime, which would have made it feel patronising, and instead uses these techniques to stop the audience from settling on an easy identification with what’s going on, constantly moving between perceptions to mimic Ruben’s shifting position.

Though Ruben loses one way of relating to the world, he gains another perspective, this new way of perceiving the world shown as being just as valid as his old life, but in a new way. A pivotal moment in this self-realisation occurs in the scene where he and a deaf boy communicate via tapping out a beat on a slide, each able to understand the other through the music they make.

Ruben realises that even if he can’t hear music in the way he could before he can feel it, the somatic reverberations creating a way of connecting to others. By letting the rhythms flow through him, the film suggests there’s always a way through, even if it’s not exactly the same as before.

Ahmed is exceptional here, conveying this inner journey with a mixture of frustration and vulnerability that gives that character lots of different layers and links to the themes of rediscovery and relationships that run through the narrative. Many of the most affecting moments come from his expressions and reactions, able to tell volumes in a small gesture, especially in the enormously moving final scene, which helps to round the story off and provide a real emotional impact.

He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and fills the part with a soulful conviction that makes so compelling to watch, completely selling the character’s emotional arc. I thought the film would focus much more on his gradual hearing loss, but it actually focuses much more on the shelter for Deaf recovering addicts Ruben attends, which helps him to make sense of his new way of life, becoming more acclimatised to his hearing loss.

It’s a lot more of a character study than I was expecting, with a low-key, understated tone that helps to bring the issues to the forefront. Raci, as the deaf head of the shelter, is superb, giving a heartfelt, compassionate performance containing a lot of warmth, becoming a mentor to Ruben. The actor isn’t actually deaf, which causes some problems with representation, but his parents were, which adds a level of authenticity and believability that wouldn’t otherwise be present in the casting of someone without any connection to the community.

He too was nominated for an Oscar, and really provides the heart of the film, resulting in some standout moments that exude a kind of laidback authority. This is true of one of his last scenes, a quiet and emotional moment that’s played at just the right level to stop any potential mawkishness, providing one of the most touching scenes of the entire story.

It’s a very heartfelt story, gradually drawing the audience in with an empathetic perspective that allows the characters and subject matter to be dealt with in a sensitive, non-judgemental way. The central relationship between Ruben and his girlfriend Lou is particularly well observed, resulting in some poignant and bittersweet moments between the two that add up to a potent third act, as the story comes full circle.

I really liked the film, although the fact that it’s been made from a hearing perspective does take away some of its impact, as neither the makers or the intended audience are deaf. This does make some of the scenes feel a bit inauthentic, especially in the way it seems to show the “right way to be deaf” through the criticism of implants, which makes it feel a little too didactic and simplistic to properly delve into the story.

The manipulation of sound is exceptional, and really helps to bring it to life, but would be lost on a deaf audience, and so even if the film does explore deafness in an empathetic, nuanced way there’s a sense of distance from the group it’s representing.

It’s quite a slow burn, which makes parts feel quite slow, and though it’s always engaging to watch it perhaps could have been tighter, as there are some parts that drag. This makes the pacing quite inconsistent, with some scenes taking a while to get going while others, especially those involving Ruben’s emotional journey, feeling much more rushed.

Had the film developed some of these elements further whilst balancing out others it would feel more consistent as a whole, with the story being more fleshed out, although the filmmakers do manage to bring it all together as the story goes on.

Sound of Metal could have explored some aspects further and been a bit tighter in construction, but is nevertheless a moving look at a man undergoing a journey of discovery that deals with its themes with a sensitive, affecting manner, benefiting from wonderfully naturalistic performances and an innovative way of telling the story.

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