Movie Review: “Sound of Metal”

editor’s note: it was not until the credits started on this movie that I realized I know one of the executive producers of the film and have worked with him in my community for years (completely outside the world of entertainment). My opinion of the movie was solidified before I was aware of his involvement and has not altered due to said involvement.

I do not know what I expected when I sat down to watch “Sound of Metal,” the new movie directed by Darius Marder, which he wrote with Abraham Marder, but what I got was blown away. The story focuses on a drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), losing his hearing and figuring out how to cope with such a huge change. A recovering drug addict, Ruben agrees to follow the advice of his bandmate/girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), and goes to a sober house for the deaf. Ruben learns, he adapts, he regresses, and he struggles to find his new place in the world over the course of the film. It is one of the most powerful things I’ve seen on screen for a long time.

Out of everything I’ve watched at home during the pandemic, this is the movie where I most wished to be back in a theater. This is the one where it felt most important to see it on the biggest screen with the best sound possible.

Let’s look at that auditory aspect first. The sound design is absolutely brilliant. Over the course of the movie it shifts around from third person perspective to first, putting us into Ruben’s position. We sometimes hear things in crisp fashion, sometimes they’re muffled, sometimes it’s all completely silent. Although the changes can be jarring, they never seem like a gimmick; they feel entirely about making Ruben’s life as accessible to a hearing audience as possible. I don’t know—I can’t know—how much it actually reflects the true experience of someone who is deaf, but I do know that it helped me feel closer to what Ruben goes through.

The press notes for the movie discuss Marder having “immersed himself in Brooklyn’s deaf community” and making sure to hire people in the deaf community for roles, including that of the leader of the sober house, Joe (Paul Raci, who is a child of a deaf adults and whose first language is ASL). And here my review is a little tricky because it’s not for me to say whether Marder did enough in talking, and listening, to the right people and put forward the best representation possible. The press notes speak of a deaf creative consultant, Jeremy Stone, as well, and so at some point I have either accept or not that Marder and company pursued the project in the right way, an inclusive way. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to believe they did until someone wiser tells me I am wrong.

What I do know is what I alluded to above – I could put myself in Ruben’s shoes and easily believe that I would, for better or worse, contemplate approaching this great change in my life in the same way he does. It is not that I would definitely do the same, but that his approach never feels outlandish or silly even when it’s not necessarily right. It feels like a natural, true, reaction.

Crucially, Ahmed brings such humanity to the role. He isn’t just good, he is stunningly great as he enters the sober house, finds his footing, starts to work with deaf children, and attempts to figure out how to carve out a space in this newly altered world. It is a joy to watch when he succeeds and a completely heartbreaking tragedy when he fails. And we are with him, just as much on a visual level as an auditory one.

There are so many turns this movie could take, so many ways that it could go off track and slip down some rabbit hole, demonizing one group or another, if only by accident. Coming away from the movie, I never had the sense that it had made any sort of serious misstep. Instead, I wanted to go back to the sober house and the school and learn more about the people who inhabit both places, I wanted to learn sign language so that I would be able to communicate with a wider swath of folks, I wanted nothing but happiness and joy for everyone involved. I wanted more time with Lou and her father (Mathieu Amalric), to see how that relationship was going to play out. But, most of all, I wanted more time with Ruben. We watch this movie and see this person go through so much and become someone completely new by the time the film closes and I wanted to see that next journey.

“Sound of Metal” is a stunningly heartfelt, truly wonderful movie, one that works on each and every level. See it.

photo credit: Amazon Studios

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