Everybody in the world right now is forced to adapt to drastic change in their lives because of the Coronavirus pandemic. For many, these changes have entirely altered the direction of their lives and changed the way they go about their daily routines. Are these changes good for us? Can we find new meaning in the different environment we find ourselves in? These are the themes explored by Sound of Metal, a new film starring Riz Ahmed as a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing and must deal with this sudden change in his life. It is a powerful and poignant movie that finally gives Ahmed a chance to shine as a leading man, and he steps up to the plate with a transcendent depiction of addiction and trauma. His performance is the centerpiece of a wonderful film that makes the audience think about how they would handle this situation in the protagonist’s footsteps, and it sends a thoughtful message about where human beings find their purpose. While it is a bit slow, the journey we take with Ahmed is one to remember and one where we come to new realizations along the way.
The film starts while following Ruben (Ahmed) and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), a two-piece metal act that are touring the United States with their extremely loud and angry stage show. They live in an Airstream and have a very low budget, but are happy with each other and the gigs they are playing daily. However, everything changes when his hearing gives out overnight. He cannot hear anything Lou says, and she has to write everything down in order for him to understand anything. Ruben clearly cannot continue touring and playing music he can hardly hear, so he must find some sort of solution. Initially, he wants to get implants that help him hear again, but this treatment is 40 to 80 thousand dollars and is not covered by health insurance. So he and Lou must invest in a community for the deaf which separates him from society and gives him a place to adapt to his new reality (i.e. learn sign language, interact with others in the deaf community, etc.).
For much of this film, Ruben is trying to find happiness and purpose within his new existence, but he cannot seem to forget about his old life. He knows what it feels like to be normal, so he keeps striving to go back to that previous existence, forgetting to find new meaning with the story he’s creating for himself here and now. A good chunk of the movie takes place in a community for the deaf, and this is where the film is at its best. Ruben is out of place because, unlike most of the rest of the community, he has not spent his entire life practicing and perfecting sign language. However, during this time we see him begin to find himself and discover a routine that brings him contentment and that he can see himself continue to pursue. But he still struggles with wanting to return to his idyllic existence on tour with Lou. This obsession with returning to the “normal” is one we are seeing across the world right now in the wake of the novel Coronavirus, yet this does not mean Sound of Metal is simply a comment on the pandemic. Humans tend to long for what they once had or what they could have, but they forget to enjoy the here and now; they forget to take the circumstances with which they are given and make paradise with their present situations.
Ahmed embodies this struggle perfectly and delivers one of the finest performances of the year in the process. His character is headstrong and stubborn at times, and he captures the flaws of this character while making the audience feel every second of his pain. Ahmed plays Ruben’s fascination with his old life like an addict who cannot get rid of his past tendencies, and while the character is a drug addict as well, to me his addiction was the idea that if he could hear again all would return to normal. The other performance that stood out for me is Paul Raci as the “leader” of the community Ruben joins. Raci displays an immense range of emotions as he empathizes with Ruben, and he has one of the singular finest scenes of acting I have seen all year. It is Raci’s final scene in the film between him and Ahmed, and it should be shown in acting classes as how to convey strong emotions without overtly stating it. Both of these actors deserve major awards recognition for their work at the very least.
The most groundbreaking aspect of Sound of Metal is the sound design. When Ruben begins losing his hearing, the sound is warped as if someone cut out all of the treble and definition out of the speakers and just left distortion. The sound designers attempt to use the sound of the entire film to convey to the audience what it feels like to be hard of hearing, and this could not have worked better. Late in the movie, the director uses absolute silence to reflect the peace Ruben feels in his mind, and these scenes are stark in how they portray the calm and stillness in life. Humans rarely pay attention to the still and peaceful nature of some of our surroundings, and sometimes we need to stop and take it all in instead of constantly feeling like we need to listen to the noise. Through the sound design, Sound of Metal conveys many important feelings and statements about the human condition, which makes this a shoe-in at the Oscars for sound mixing and editing.
This film isn’t perfect: it is a bit slow and if you desire to predict the outcome of the narrative, it may not be too difficult. However, I don’t believe the predictability of the plot is the point of the story. Whatever sudden change we may be going through — a loved one passing away, the loss of a job, a global pandemic — it is possible to find meaning and purpose within the confines of these great struggles. The performances and the sound design are the highlights of this film, but it overall provides a fascinating experience that sheds light on the deaf community in America while reflecting on the human reaction to difficult circumstances. Sound of Metal is a great addition to the indoor viewing that the pandemic has forced people to resort to, and it is a must watch when it is released on Amazon Prime on December 4.
I give Sound of Metal an A.