Movie Review: Sound of Metal

Plot: When heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) abruptly loses his hearing, everything he knows comes into question. Worried that the sudden change may affect his sobriety, Ruben’s girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) persuades Ruben to attend a community for deaf recovering addicts. There Ruben strives to come to terms with his new reality, relinquish the past, and embrace an uncertain future.

Review: Great films possess the inherent ability to deliver truth to people with disparate backgrounds. Even if the manner in which that truth is conveyed may be foreign to the viewer, memorable movies rise above the specifics of circumstance. John Singleton’s classic film Boyz n the Hood reaches beyond just African American men and women growing up in Compton, because its themes and truth transcend demographics. Such is the case with first time director Darius Marder’s phenomenal debut film Sound of Metal, a visceral, poetic, and intimate examination of loss and personal growth.

While I’ve been impressed with Riz Ahmed’s previous work (Nightcrawler, Star Wars: Rogue One), I always saw him as a (strong) supporting actor. That completely changed after watching Sound of Metal. Ahmed delivers a performance that’s as gut-wrenching and emotionally resonant this side of Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. From the opening frame we are completely caught up in his story as he abruptly loses his hearing and then desperately tries to chase what he sees as the only solution – expensive cochlear implants. Ironically, Ruben’s loss of hearing is not his biggest problem (even if he thinks it is). Rather it is Ruben’s inability to cope with his new reality and find stillness in the silence. Marder presents the audience a character who revels in a world that thrives off of loud, shrill, atonal music…and then rips it away from that same character. The resultant journey is nothing less than brilliant.

There are moments in this movie that, as someone who’s dealt with mental illness for over two decades, hit me with the emotional equivalent of a Mack truck to the solar plexus. After Ruben finally tells his girlfriend Lou about his loss of hearing, she’s immediately concerned about his sobriety and safety and wants to end the tour they are on. Even though Ruben insists he’s fine, his behavior almost immediately begins to change. It was astounding to see that byplay between Ahmed and Cooke because I’ve been Ruben delivering those lines and I’ve seen the look on Lou’s face on my loved ones’ faces. I don’t know the world of heavy metal from Adam, but I immediately connected with Ruben’s soul in that moment.

Darius and Abraham Marder’s screenplay presents a realistic and nuanced depiction of the deaf community, especially through the character of Joe (Paul Raci). Joe runs his community based on a very simple philosophy: deafness is not a disability that needs to be fixed. That simple tenet allows his community to live, learn, and grow in their sobriety and their connection to the human race. While initially Ruben resists this concept, eventually his journey evolves when he begins to see the world through the eyes of his brothers and sisters in the deaf community. As Ruben slowly learns sign language and bonds with others, particularly children, we see his world opening in an entirely new manner.

It is this last that makes Ruben’s decision to receive cochlear implants and the inevitable confrontation with Joe so devastating. Ruben’s desire to cling to the past, to replace something that is irretrievably lost, is ultimately just another addiction, as potent as the heroin he used to inject into his veins. It isn’t until his reunion with Lou in the final act of the film that Ruben’s transformation really takes hold. Despite being right for each other for many years, by the end of the movie both characters are in different places – better places – than they were at the beginning. While the reality is heartbreaking, Ruben demonstrates a profound measure of maturity by telling Lou it’s OK to let go of their relationship. The result is the most emotionally cathartic moment I’ve seen in a film since the “It’s not your fault” scene from Good Will Hunting.

In addition to the amazing performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible sound design of Sound of Metal. We are repeatedly plunged into Ruben’s auditory journey, whether it’s the muffled sound of his band, the recurring ringing, or the distorted reverberations of the cochlear implants. The exquisite sound design makes the final still, and silent moments of the movie so much more impactful. In the end Ruben finally discovers that moment of perfect stillness he had been searching for all along.

No legitimate “best of 2020” list cannot include Sound of Metal. Marder, Ahmed, and the film itself all deserve a ton of awards love in the next couple months. Much like the aforementioned John Singleton, Darius Marder’s first feature is powerful, stunning, and quite simply the best movie I’ve seen in 2020. Don’t miss it.

My rating System:

0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
3 Bad
4 Sub Par
5 Average
6 Ok
7 Good
8 Very Good
9 Great
10 A Must See

Sound of Metal rates: 10/10