“Sound of Metal” Movie Review


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     There are so many things in life of which we take for granted.  Our ability to see, hear, taste, and feel are only a few of the senses we utilize on a daily basis.  More often than not as a crucial element to our livelihoods.  Take one of those away and suddenly what was once a norm within your existence changes who you are in an instant.  Most will never know what it’s like to suddenly lose your hearing and thus become deaf, but if the very personal ordeal experienced by Riz Ahmed’s character, Ruben, in director Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is any indication of the unbearable anxiety, anguish, and loss which accompanies such a tragic circumstance, this story will shed light on what seems to be an ignored segment of our population.

     Marder once again collaborates with his “The Place Beyond the Pines” writing partner. Derek Cianfrance, on the story and screenplay, while directing his second feature which is certain to be mentioned as one of the best films of the year.  And Ahmed, after an effective leading turn in HBO’s “The Night Of”, instantly becomes the pulse of the film, bringing a very human quality to a character whose life is turned upside down after seemingly overcoming so much to get where he and his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), presently reside.  It is the kind of performance that will no doubt appear on many short lists come awards season.

     The initial reaction to the life Ruben and Lou are currently leading may not necessarily be positive in most circles, but as the characters are fleshed out, you come to realize how far they have come together.  In the opening scene, the camera sits directly in front of Ruben as he ferociously performs on a drum set during a gig set somewhere in a dark cavernous warehouse, while surrounded by concert goers.  He and Lou are the lone members of a traveling heavy metal punk band that sees the latter handling guitar and vocals.  They get around from place to place in a large Air Stream that serves as both their home, transportation, and storage for their musical equipment.  

     Their lives center around each other, as well as traveling from city to city, performing in garage like venues in front of a few dozen partiers where drugs and alcohol fuel all night sets from several bands of similar genre.  We are meant to get a sense of what this kind of existence would be like, as Ruben rises in the morning earlier than Lou, knocking out a few sets of push ups and air squats while cooking what by all accounts would be a healthy breakfast for the two of the them, complete with a freshly blended green smoothie that would make the guy in “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” quite proud.  All of this is likely routine, as the camera follows the massive RV to another concert location.  But when Ruben wakes up the next day, something is wrong.

     To put it simply, he can’t hear.  It’s as if his ears are plugged and everything sounds like it might underwater.  But he doesn’t react with emotion, even though his stomach is almost certainly in knots.  He doesn’t even alarm Lou about it, instead going to a pharmacy for a quick remedy and eventually to a hearing specialist who tells him his hearing is only working at a small fraction of the normal level.  With another gig set for night fall, Ruben tries to play as if nothing is wrong, but his performance says otherwise, forcing him to reveal to Lou that he is nearly deaf.

     What follows is a storyline centered around Ruben’s experience at a rural community established for the deaf and his quest to raise enough money to pay for a surgery said to potentially restore his hearing.  Of course, “Sound of Metal” goes much deeper than that as Marder’s camera seems to accompany Ruben’s every experience in what plays visually as more of a documentary than a traditional film where every shot is planned out and choreographed. This, combined with an alarmingly realistic sound design, courtesy of sound editors Nicolas Becker, Maria Carolina , & Santana Caraballo-Gramcko, which attempts to allow the audience to experience what Ruben can and cannot hear, brings forth a certain realism about the condition likely not seen or heard in a film before.

     And given the circumstances, that being many of the people in the film are not able to hear, the performances are subtle, relying on the use of sign language and non verbal communication rather than the outward dramatic emotion that would normally accompany this kind of subject matter.  As Joe, the leader of a deaf community that welcomes Ruben and helps him adjust to his hearing loss, Paul Raci delivers a touching and heartfelt performance.  We know Joe is qualified and up to the task because without saying a word, the fact he was once in Ruben’s shoes can be seen plainly on his face.  It’s as if he is feeling Ruben’s pain right along with him, but Joe knows how to cope with it.  How to move forward.  Ruben still must figure that out.

     The same can be said for Lauren Ridloff, whose Diane brings Ruben into her middle school aged classroom and lets him learn from a group of courageous youngsters who have made the fact they are deaf a clear source of strength in their lives.  All of which leads to the obvious theme of overcoming obstacles in life no matter how difficult it may be.  And though what becomes of Ruben isn’t exactly a fairytale, the path he takes at least gives him a chance.  Sometimes that’s all the motivation we need.  

GRADE: A