Listen to the warm
Sound of Metal is about losing one thing and turning your back on another
(The Oscars are this weekend and, as I do every year, I’m reviewing the Best Picture contenders before the ceremony. So far for 2021 I have Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman and The Father handled. After this, only one more to go! Then: Showtime! )
Sound of Metal is about a very specific thing — the plight of a drummer who has suddenly, catastrophically lost his hearing — the way a poem or a prayer can be about a very specific thing, while also being an object of contemplation that leads somewhere else. I’ve seen a lot of movies like that, mostly in foreign languages, but I wasn’t expecting it from this one, partly because the onset of Ruben’s deafness — in the middle of a low-budget noise-metal tour he’s doing with his girlfriend — I found so harsh and traumatizing (maybe more than it would have been had I not once been a touring musician) that it led me to expect something less lyrical.
But after the initial meltdowns and confusion, and Ruben’s desperate desire to just fix the problem (about the only thing he can hear from his audiologist is “implants”) and the arrangement to get him into a group home for young deaf people, and the key revelation that Ruben is also (mild spoiler) a recovering addict, things quiet down —literally, as you might expect, but also as a formal strategy. Left by his girlfriend to adjust to his condition in a group home, Ruben is wary and depressed, but he has a pretty good sponsor in Joe, a deaf vet and reformed alcoholic who has a canny way with resistant newbies, as is clear from the deft way he quickly gets Ruben to relinquish the keys to his Airstream and his phone, and to sit and contemplate his condition.
In the middle section we see and feel — and hear, thanks to a clever sound design that weaves us in and our of his deafness — Ruben coming into equilibrium with his state and the people at the group home, and with Joe. It’s as if the quiet of his new life, and the necessity of staying in one place and waiting for, as Joe puts it, a stillness that is “the Kingdom of God... that will never abandon you,” takes some of the sting out of deafness.
I don’t want to say too much about what comes after that, not because it’s a big surprise — in fact, from the basic facts it’s not too hard to guess. I will say it involves a very familiar movie character-conflict, between what the hero wants and what he needs. This leads to some disappointment, even (if you’re inclined to think of it this way) betrayal. Also revelation, maybe. The movie is too quiet and contemplative not to leave us in some mystery about that.
As much as the remarkable sound design, Daniël Bouquet’s photography and Mikkel Nielsen’s editing show the shifts and bleeding between the peace and the chaos in Ruben’s life. As Ruben, Riz Ahmed is convincingly enough a serious musician — physically tuned-in, sensitive, and defensive of his gift — that we understand why he is simultaneously bereft at that gift’s loss and stubbornly fixated on its retrieval. Olivia Cooke is also a convincing artist, but also clearly has something else eating her, and when we see her transformed later it suddenly makes sense — like when you know someone from a relationship and see them after it’s over and are surprised at how good they look. Paul Raci as Joe is tough, but sensitive, too, and though Ruben’s suffering is our primary concern it is really something remarkable and touching to see him hurt, however well long practice has taught him to handle it.