REVIEW: SOUND OF METAL IS A MODERN MASTERPIECE
(SOUND OF METAL is out now on Amazon Prime Video
and will have a theatrical release starting May 15th.)
It’s effortless to be hyperbolic. I know I’m prone to it often. I’m excitable that way. But rarely has a film gripped and moved me in the same way as SOUND OF METAL. From the very first frames, it’s a stunning piece of filmmaking. A gorgeous, humane portrait of losing a part of yourself and the first steps into healing as life becomes something you didn’t expect. Anchored by a perfect performance by Riz Ahmed (deserving all the accolades), it’s one of the rare films that only get better as time goes by.
Ruben (Ahmed) is a drummer for a small-time metal band, where his girlfriend is the lead vocalist. Together, they tour the country while living in their rundown van, and life seems good. One day, Ruben notices something wrong with his hearing and quickly afterward loses it completely. Whatever plans he had for the future are gone—replaced by uncertainty, where he feels overwhelmed by that which once was mundane.
SOUND OF METAL isn’t a plot-driven film. It’s more of a nuanced slice of life picture, where the characters and emotions of daily life are at the forefront. Thankfully, it’s also not a sensationalist, gaudy monstrosity, where a typical ailment becomes a defining factor of the characters. Over 5% of the world’s population has some form of hearing loss. Treating them like curiosities, as a lesser film would do, is insulting and reductive. Instead, SOUND OF METAL follows every step of loss and recovery with compassion and dignity. In the end, there aren’t miracles, but there’s the hope of normality, and that feels far more remarkable.
It’s also not a slight to call this a small film. The emotions within are as grand as the world. But it doesn’t need vast declarations of love or life-affirming monologues. Most of its tender moments are in silence, through tiny gestures or a knowing smile. Supporting Ahmed are the wonderful Olivia Cooke and the superb Paul Raci, who come and go from Ruben’s life at different times.
SOUND OF METAL flows effortlessly, and the way director Darius Marder paces his story is immaculate. The minimalist script eases us into the relationship between Ruben and Lou organically from the opening sequence, where the duo travels across the country. They banter, bicker, and express their love in small ways, and everything feels natural and lived-in. As time passes and Lou settles into his new life, the way Marder uses sound to envelop audiences into this reality is astonishing. Deafness is not a trick nor a gimmick. It just is.
Marder builds this change through rhythm and beat. From Ruben’s drumming, which we realize isn’t so much passionate as it is mechanical through a single audiovisual cue, to the overwhelming cacophony that comes with sensory overload. Marder understands that reaction to change, both normal and tumultuous, isn’t just physical. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that can last for years. The exquisite sound design is so vital to the success of this film, and there isn’t enough praise available for the work of foley artist Heikki Kossi and editor Pietu Korhonen. By any rights, their work will be acknowledged with an Oscar.
Through all this, Marder and Ahmed find eloquent truths about life and community. From the small metal circles in which Ruben moves through in the beginning to another tribe welcoming him with open arms, there’s a natural progression of grief as he first must come to terms with who he is. I found it immensely rewarding that SOUND OF METAL depicts neither of them as magical solutions or nefarious bullies. No one ostracises Ruben for his differences in a cheap first act hurdle, nor is there an instant love interest through whom he learns to live again.
It helps that Olivia Cooke, playing Lou, is so stellar in her well-written part. We learn more of who Lou is through what she doesn’t say and what she hides in her body language, and Cooke delivers an impeccable performance as someone who wants to save their loved one but potentially doesn’t have the power or ability to do so. There’s no cheap tragedy here either; it’s more of a quiet realization that sometimes life is messy, and not everyone we love stays in ours for as long as we’d like.
SOUND OF METAL is up for several Oscars this year, each of them more than earned. But more than that, it’s an essential step in the right direction for representation, which demystifies and normalizes a common part that is an everyday thing for much of humanity. It is a modern masterpiece that will grow in stature as the years pass, signifying an important moment of artistic growth for everyone involved.