Director: Darius Marder
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video
The clear observation that most reviewers will make about Sound of Metal is that it uses sound to tell a story in a way that other films don’t. And this is completely fair: its sound design is spectacular. It uses music, distortion, silence, and muffling to carry so much of this film forward.
But to harp on about Sound of Metal’s technical achievements would do this film a disservice. At its heart, this is a story about trauma, about addiction, and about the slow, gruelling process of acceptance. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer in a two-piece with his partner and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). The pair live in an RV on the road, driving from state to state, playing underground venues and giving off the feeling that they’re only ever one more tour away from making it.
One day, Ruben almost completely loses his hearing. A doctor informs him that there is no way back, and Ruben grieves and recovers for the remainder of the film’s runtime. He meets Joe (Paul Raci) who leads a community of deaf addicts in the idyllic hills of rural somewhere, where he teaches that deafness is “not a handicap”, but instead a way of life.
A less impressive director with a less impressive script would have had this film be a road-to-recovery character study about a self-indulgent, off-the-rails rockstar. A character who realises the errors of his hedonistic ways through his deafness and realises the inherent beauty in his disability.
Instead, we learn a short way into the film that Ruben is an addict. From there, the film explores his deafness through an existing lens of addiction, rather than learning about both at the same time.
This is where Sound of Metal shines, for me - even more so than in its sound design. The intelligent trajectory of its narrative even has the final 30 minutes of the film take a turn in a way that really caught me off-guard. Again, a simpler film would have just had Ruben find peace in a deaf community after 90 minutes and call it a day. But Sound of Metal is not simple.
Beyond the sound design, there are other technical aspects of this film that deserve a nod. Its cinematography is stunning throughout, and even features an homage to Rashomon in the last few minutes of its runtime. But one thing that caught me was the use of subtitles.
This is something that film is taking advantage of more and more: realising that sometimes, audiences benefit from the feeling of alienation that a lack of subtitles can provide. When Ruben first starts joining the deaf community, they sign at each other without any subtitles, leaving us as confused as he is. But as time goes by, as he becomes more confident, we hear the other side of the conversation. We get brought into it - we feel more included, just as Ruben does.
Ahmed’s acting also deserves honourable mention. The man from Wembley has had an extraordinary few years in Hollywood, but this is certainly among his best performances. It is a deep, honest role that communicates the experience of a man coming to terms with a great, life-changing trauma.
The film loses a star for being slightly too slow at points in the first hour or so, and for not giving more screen time to Joe and Lou, both compelling characters who would have benefited from more depth. But to do so would have borrowed time from the sole focus: Ruben’s journey, which is all-absorbing and, ultimately, well worth a watch.