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“The world does keep moving and it can be a damn cruel place, But for me those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”
Sound of Metal is the much anticipated dramatic debut of Darius Marder, a frequent collaborator of Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance – who has story and production credits here. It follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) a couple who live in their own RV touring the country as part of a musical duo with the realistically rubbish name Blackgammon.
Ruben plays drums and Lou does guitar and vocals. Whilst a lot of reviewers have described Blackgammon as a metal or punk band, as a music nerd I can’t stop myself from pointing out that whilst Ruben may be a punk for sure (check out Cinema Blend’s great work cataloging the shirts worn in the film), I would describe the songs we see performed as being more akin to noise rock.
Outside of their music-life, Ruben is a recovering addict and it’s suggested Lou may be too (and she certainly has issues with self-harm). One of the strengths of the film is its economic storytelling. There are many aspects of Ruben and Lou’s past that are not spelled out artificially for viewers but are subtly hinted at enough throughout the narrative for us to understand.
The film opens with one of their performances and it is exhilarating – all lens flare, whipping camera moves and sweat shooting across the stage. Ahmed learned the drums for the film and how he articulates Ruben’s mental state as he starts playing is incredible. From that intensity, we are then dropped into the day-to-day life of the nomadic couple. We are presented with the daily soundscape Reuben experiences – the whir of the smoothie maker, the sound of the coffee percolator – all of which will take on a frightening new resonance as Ruben loses his hearing.
Early on though, we hear snatches of Ruben and Lou’s conversations as they kill time driving to the next gig, the dialogue being brilliantly naturalistic. The film is the best since Green Room at capturing the feel of a spit and sawdust rock venue and at portraying the mundanity of the touring life in the deserted nondescript car parks the couple makes camp in.
Reuben suddenly begins to lose his hearing. At first, he doesn’t tell anyone. He visits a doctor who tells him that he has less than 30 per cent hearing and it is deteriorating rapidly, making an appropriate Spinal Tap reference (as every great rock film should) by telling him that he would not hear the test if he “turned it up to 11”. Against advice, Ruben is determined to finish the tour and keep his life the same. He clings to the idea of the cochlear implant even though he is told this is expensive and not the quick fix solution he wants.
This section of the drama is like a horror film. The film establishes the difference between an objective view of the events and Ruben’s subjective perspective simply through audio as he endures a terrifying transformation worthy of Cronenberg. When he eventually tells Lou, she gets in touch with Ruben’s sponsor who directs him to a sober living community for deaf people run by Joe (Paul Raci).
“Have you thought about using since you lost your hearing?”
“Today is not a good day”
Whilst initially reluctant to join, Ruben moves into the community and begins to – as Joe says – “learn to be deaf”. Ruben is thrown into an environment where signing is the only mode of communication, which he is totally unable to do. With his communication restricted, he is forced to sink or swim in terms of adapting to his new life.
After garnering an Oscar nomination for Ahmed, the most obvious first port of call when discussing the film is the acting. Ahmed’s performance is breathtaking. As I already said he learned drums, but also sign language for the film too. His performance has a beautiful subtlety to it. He expresses so much without words, embodying the character totally. On top of this, he looks the part – with Ruben cutting a striking figure with a shock of peroxide blonde hair and realistically terrible homemade tattoos. Olivia Cooke is similarly great, conveying a slight and delicate person who still has her own internal strength.
Also worth singling out is Paul Raci who plays Joe and is also up for an Oscar this year for his performance. Raci is an incredible character himself. Raised a “Coda” or “Child of Deaf Adult”, Raci is an actual veteran and former addict who has worked in deaf theatre and has had supporting roles in film and television for years (His ASL Black Sabbath tribute band is worth checking out as well!) His portrayal of Joe is fantastic and feels achingly truthful, the actor bringing an authenticity and history to the role others simply couldn’t.
Sound of Metal is a beautifully humane film. It’s one that was conceived years before the pandemic but yet it speaks to the experience of having to sit with oneself that a lot of us have had to get used to during this time. I will be very shocked if this is not my personal film of the year.