Sound of Metal is a film with perfect narrative rhythm; the cinematic story makes interesting, poignant decisions for the entirety of its runtime. Every time I thought I knew where the story was headed, the film would wonderfully subvert my expectations and head in a fresh direction. There is a remarkable distance—physically, sonically, formally—between the opening shot of heavy-metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) slamming his drumsticks upon his instruments and the flawless final scene of Ruben sitting alone on a bench in a surprising location across the globe. It takes a capable story-teller to span that distance and keep an audience emotionally engaged, and writer-director Darius Marder certainly demonstrates such capacity.
Ruben and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) form the metal-rock due Blackgammon, with Ruben on drums and Lou as the singer-guitarist. On tour across middle America in their Airstream RV—their home and form of transportation—the pair happily live from gig to gig, taking each moment as it comes. But when Ruben experiences sudden and dramatic permanent hearing loss, it sends the band on an unanticipated and unwanted detour, both musically and emotionally. We learn that Ruben is a former addict, with Lou as his support system and quasi-savior. Indeed, the two later declare that they “saved” one another four years earlier, and that their relationship is a kind of lifeline. But as this new physical change in Ruben’s hearing disrupts their equilibrium, it threatens to send Ruben spiraling back into addictive behaviors.
And this is where the narrative takes its first unexpected turn, because one can readily expect Ruben to lapse back into addiction while Lou either “saves” him again, or leaves him while he hits rock bottom. Sound of Metal chooses a more gracious and patient approach—Ruben and Lou check out a rural deaf community and addict recuperation program led by Joe (Paul Raci), a stern-but-kindly mentor who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. While Ruben is initially resistant, he ultimately ends up back at Joe’s community, and we bear witness as he takes the long path towards accepting his new hearing status and finding a sense of belonging in the deaf community.
Sound of Metal is filled with moments where the performers could have chosen a melodramatic tone or given a big emotional Oscar-worthy speech. But Marder downplays such ostentatious moments in his direction while still keeping an eye on formal innovations. Riz Ahmed’s performance as Ruben is, hands down, the best I’ve seen from any film in 2020; it’s remarkably understated and intimate, with Ahmed communicating a great deal through his vulnerable eyes and bodily posture. His drummer is authentic too; I’m a percussionist, and I can tell when actors are faking it, and Ahmed is the real deal.
Moreover, the film’s soundscape often puts us in Ruben’s position, using audio techniques to make us empathetically experience what it might be like to be deaf. Where this auditory approach might have felt cheesy or even utilitarian in less-capable hands, Sound of Metal is deeply honoring of the deaf community. For instance, Joe introduces Ruben to Diane (Lauren Ridloff), a kindhearted teacher who teaches deaf students, where he (both Ruben the character and Riz the actor) learns American Sign Language while also becoming a kind of teacher’s aide who helps with the children. Again, where a more formulaic film would try to shoehorn some sort of romance between Ruben and Diane (with Lou suddenly coming back in to create the classic love triangle), Sound of Metal forgoes such tropes and instead focuses on Ruben’s journey of self-discovery with his new sensory phenomenological reality.
In a critical scene between Ruben and Joe, the latter tells his young unsettled pupil about the experience of sitting alone in an empty room with only pen and paper, just being in the silence. Joe describes this moment as “the kingdom of God.” It’s one of the only overt religious references in Sound of Metal, yet it carries with it subtle and powerful associations. Indeed, the presence of God can be revealed not in the boisterous transcendent speeches of biblical epic films, but in the sound of sheer silence (cf. 1 Kings 19). As I watched Sound of Metal, I was often overcome with a peculiar sense of what I can only describe as love, as if simply being with this film opened my mind, ears, and heart to deeper truths about the human condition and what it means to belong in this world. Whoever has ears, let them hear.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5363618/