Sound of Metal (Belgium/United States, 2019)

December 07, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sound of Metal Poster

Sound of Metal, a 2019 Belgian-American drama from director Darius Marder, achieves its life-affirming aim in such a way that it never feels cloying or preachy. Featuring a forceful central performance by Riz Ahmed (best-known as either one of the supporting characters in Star Wars: Rogue One or the comic relief in the otherwise dark Nightcrawler), Sound of Metal tells a story about coping and overcoming while avoiding the narrative pitfall of artifice.

When the movie opens, Ruben (Ahmed), is the drummer for a heavy metal band that travels the country playing small venues for tiny, passionate crowds. He shares an RV with his lead-singer girlfriend, Lulu (Olivia Cooke); the two have developed a comfortable, co-dependent relationship. His demons relate to a drug addiction he holds at bay (clean-and-sober for four years). Her issues aren’t specifically voiced but their evidence can be seen in the cutting scars on her arm. These two have challenges aplenty but they seem happy (or at least content) until fate strikes a new blow.

It starts innocuously enough – a minor distortion in Ruben’s hearing (something Marder conveys to the audience by letting us hear things from the character’s perspective – a technique he employs on-and-off throughout the film). The problem expands rapidly to the point where Ruben is almost completely deaf. As panic and depression set in, he and Lulu recognize that a drug relapse is not only possible but perhaps inevitable. Taking charge, Lulu locates a rehab center for the non-hearing run by a tough-but-kindhearted man named Joe (Paul Raci). In order to accept Ruben, he requires three things: no vehicle, no cellphone, and no Lulu. Initially, Ruben resists but, compelled by the undeniability of his circumstances, he acquiesces. In his mind, this is a temporary thing. He has his sights set on raising the money for a cochlear implant.

Sound of Metal is a character study that follows a familiar narrative trajectory. Marder is more interested in exploring the specificity of Ruben’s struggles than in blazing new trails. The character has to undergo all the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Only when he comes to grips with the reality of his current situation can he move forward. Nevertheless, there remains a gap between him and many of the others who live and work in Joe’s community. Ruben regards deafness as a disability and is determined to regain at least a semblance of his hearing. Joe points out that the others don’t see it as a handicap. It’s part of who they are as individuals. (This underlies the reason why a portion of the deaf community is against cochlear implants.)

While the supporting cast is strong – Olivia Cooke as Lulu, Paul Raci as Joe, and Mathieu Amalric as Lulu’s supportive father – this is Ahmed’s film from start to finish. It’s a remarkable performance that runs the gamut of emotions comprising the five stages of grief. It also helps to dispel the image of the heavy metal rocker as a constant partier with little self-control. That might have once been true for Ruben but the man we meet in Sound of Metal is often subdued and restrained – except when he’s on stage and pours everything that he has into his drumming.

Marder uses a lot of shots designed to give the film a quasi-documentary feel. The most interesting thing he does is to provide the viewer with insight into Ruben’s world by allowing the sound to replicate what the character is hearing (or, in some cases, not hearing). Subtitles are employed when necessary (especially during scenes when characters use ASL – American Sign Language) and Marder is careful not to overuse the audio perspective approach.

Sound of Metal is unquestionably a feel-good movie but it approaches that goal from a low-key perspective. Grounded in reality, it doesn’t turn either Ruben or Joe into a magical figure who has all the answers and the resolution doesn’t offer a clean resolution to every plot point. Indeed, one could argue that Marder leaves things relatively open-ended so viewers can fill in the blanks as it suits them. The ending could best be described as hopeful and satisfying – much like the movie as a whole.

Sound of Metal (Belgium/United States, 2019)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1