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Review: Sound of Metal – Must be Heard to be Believed

When describing what makes a good movie, how it uses sound usually falls lower down the list than visuals and performances. Millions in blockbuster budget money is spent showcasing huge explosions and fight scenes, and noise only comes into focus in binary form – deafening blasts or startling silences. Yet without the auditory crunch of a fist connecting with jaw, the boom and sizzle of the bolt strike of lightning, or the roar of a wave, entire optic experiences would be wasted.

Sound of Metal asks viewers to personally consider sound in all its range and diversity from how it subtly informs and enriches life, to what its absence really feels like. 

When heavy-metal drummer Ruben (a sinewy, bleached-blond Riz Ahmed) isn’t drumming as part of his and girlfriend Lou’s (Olivia Cooke) band Blackgammon, he’s bumming around the US in a cool RV, living a nice life skirting the fringes of society, until he suddenly loses most of his hearing. Medical tests reveal the bad news, it will further deteriorate if Ruben continues to surround himself with a wall of sound. Expensive cochlear implants might help, but Ruben doesn’t have the money and there are no guarantees of success. So he ignores the problem until it forces him to walk out of a gig, unable to do what he loves. The battle against hearing loss is not Ruben’s only fight, so when Lou finally realises what’s happening, she takes him to a rural centre run by the intriguing Joe (Paul Raci) to help Ruben come to terms with his thoughts and behaviour, a fate more frightening to him than impending deafness. Joe wants Ruben to accept his situation as a blessing not a burden, but as Lou moves overseas, Ruben scrambles to find the money for the operation, still struggling to realise that his problems are deeper than the absence of sound. 

It’s unsurprising that the star of Sound of Metal is not any actor, but the sound design. The movie uses a startling array of sounds to envelop the viewer in Ruben’s world; from overwhelming bass, the strain of trying to parse muffled conversation, profound and total silence and the jarring tinniness of medical solutions. The wind whistling through fields is a soothing balm, energetic drumming a compulsive delight, in fact, Sound of Metal does its job so well that a hammer hitting a nail feels as melodic as a full orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth.

The sound wouldn’t work half so well if the central performance wasn’t equally compelling. Ahmed is a captivating lead. His restlessness, love and self-hatred painfully clear to see. Raci and Cooke have less to do,  effectively being there to round out Ruben’s story. Lou is an intense force consumed by rhythm who should have had more to do, and Joe’s centredness is a nice counterpoint to Ruben’s chaotic approach. 

This is director Darius Marder’s feature debut, having previously co-written Derek Cianfrance’s Place Beyond the Pines, a film with a similar tone, which explains why the script is a screenwriter’s boilerplate. Yet, Sound of Metal’s elevation to award nominee comes from how it touches the heart. Ruben is a character to be treasured, his tentative bond with deaf children and their teacher Diane (Lauren Ridloff, doing a fantastic job) is heartwarming and more effective than the introduction of Lou’s father (played by veteran French actor Mathieu Amalraic). Plus, the film’s perfect ending will stay with the viewer long after the lights come on (or the laptop screen goes dark).

Sound of Metal is a compelling journeyman movie with meaningful characters and a believable story lifted by a truly unique auditory experience. To paraphrase the idiom, it must be heard to be believed.

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