Oscars 2021: Sound of Metal review
Sound of Metal, directed and co-written by Darius Marder, first premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 before being nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscars. It stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a drummer and recovering heroin addict whose life is thrown into disarray by the sudden onset of deafness.
Ruben and Lou (Olivia Cooke), his girlfriend and singer-guitarist bandmate, had been living in a co-dependent, nomadic bubble – touring the U.S. in a converted RV, performing to loyal metalhead fanbases. But when Ruben’s hearing all but disappears, he and Lou are forced to reckon with a reality that affects them both. Panicked, Lou calls Ruben’s sponsor who refers them to Joe, a Vietnam War veteran and former alcoholic who runs a therapeutic community for hearing-impaired people, a place where they can learn how to accept their condition as a valid existence. Joe encourages Ruben to stay, and that means immersing himself fully in the experience — no Lou, no RV, not even a phone. When Lou leaves—and they promise to reunite again—Ruben is presented with the opportunity for a new life.
Joe makes one thing abundantly clear to Ruben from the outset: the community is not about fixing; it’s about adapting, and Ruben’s first assignment is a deceptively complex one: “learn how to be deaf.” Before he lost his hearing, Ruben spoke and behaved with a kind of studied, militaristic precision, like he was keeping the ferocity of his addiction and his own self-destructiveness barely contained. Once that psychic orderliness is upended, he doesn’t know what to do. Joe imparts to Ruben the importance of stillness — of being able to sit with oneself and simply be. Soon, Ruben finds his place in Joe’s community: forming friendships, learning sign language alongside other hearing-impaired kids, and even teaching them how to play the drums. His surroundings become clearer and warmer. His tense body relaxes, and his big eyes—both terrified and terrifying—start to glow with compassion. We’re watching a new man being born.
Against Joe's advice, Ruben is still intent on finding the money to pay for a surgery that the doctor says would restore some of his hearing, though that might mean selling his RV and his recording equipment, sabotaging the musical career that was supposedly the whole point. At first, it looks as if the film is going to be about the conflict between Ruben and Joe and their different worldviews. Instead, Sound of Metal remains focused on the dichotomous struggle of a man who, amidst the desperate resistance to his own situation, finds tranquility but fails to recognise it. Having brilliantly evoked Ruben’s experience of physical rather than aural vibrations, sound designer Nicolas Becker conjures a harsh electronic dissonance that echoes Ruben’s internal conflict. Just as addiction is a central theme, Ruben’s desire for surgery is a metaphor for a crisis of faith, an identity struggle embodied in the multilayered sound design.
Ruben eventually goes to Paris to find Lou, who is staying with her wealthy father, Richard. Lou emerges a changed woman: her hair is shorter and darker, she’s speaking French, she’s stopped the anxious habit of clawing at her arms. So much has transpired in the time since they’ve been apart, neither person knows where to begin. On the evening Ruben arrives, Lou and Richard host a party, a loud, extravagant affair — food and drink and a candle-lit terrace at Richard’s elegant home, with its books and floorboards and high-ceilings. Lou and Richard perform a duet while the guests listen. The sound is pristine — Lou’s voice purer and more delicate than we've previously heard it. Slowly, the sound transforms from how we hear it to how Ruben hears it; distorted, staticky, loud — like metal. Ahmed’s face carries all the pathos and depth of a man realising that things will never be the same; not in the way he enjoys music, nor in his relationship. “You saved my life,” he tells Lou that night, through tears. “You saved mine too,” she responds, as they embrace for a final time.
Powerful to the end, Sound of Metal is about the fragility of daily existence and learning to celebrate the worst of what life has to offer. Ahmed, in a career-defining performance, conveys both rage and vulnerability, and even when the story offers melodrama, he never surrenders to the easy choice. With astonishing authenticity, Marder conjures a world in which every detail rings true. From the wall-of-noise ambience of Ruben’s performances (shot in front of live crowds) to group debates conducted in sign language, Sound of Metal finds universal appeal in the minutiae of the everyday, and in the heartbreak, grief, love, and joy that can be found in silence.