by Jacob Zito
Although “Sound of Metal” was not created with the intention of being dropped during the midst of a global pandemic, it is a film that captures the spirit of the world at the time of its release. The film follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer and recovering drug addict who unexpectedly begins to lose his hearing while on tour with his partner, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Immediately, the genuine nature of this story stands out. Writers Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance’s story makes every character, whether they are in a starring role or just a single shot, feel well lived-in. Ruben and Lou could have easily been written off as one-dimensional punks that have to navigate the hardships that come with hearing loss; in fact, this is how they are seemingly set up in the first scene, but as the movie continues, it is clear that much more respect is given to crafting the identities of these two musicians, giving the audience an intimate peek into their lives. The space that they live in, the meals that they share, and the conversations they have create an environment that feels exceptionally sincere, making it especially heart-wrenching to watch Ruben’s world crumble in a matter of hours.
It is hard to imagine anyone else but Ahmed being able to portray Ruben’s grief in a hauntingly honest way. His performance, from his subtle expressions to his violent outbursts, exposes all the vulnerable actions and reactions of a man experiencing the painful realization that he can no longer continue his passion due to unpredictable loss. It is near impossible to not feel worried for Ruben as he walks the line between nervous composure and complete breakdown. This concern is perfectly reflected in Cooke’s performance of Lou because, much like Ahmed, Cooke is able to capture the beautiful intricacies of a relationship and the ultimate anxiety that comes with watching a loved one become vulnerable to relapse. Whilst on the film’s top performances, Paul Raci’s portrayal of Joe, a tough-loving rehab center manager who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War, is phenomenal. Any time Joe is on screen, he radiates a calm, safe energy that allows Ruben to accept his condition and begin his new journey as a man who can no longer hear.
Undeniably, the most remarkable aspect of the film is how it captures the jarring nature of hearing loss through sound design. From the beginning, the film emphasizes noises ranging from the booming cacophony of drums to just the minuscule drip of a coffee pot, so that when Ruben is suddenly plunged into the deafening ringing of hearing loss, it dawns on the audience just how much we take the safe consistency of life for granted. The auditory contrast of ordinary life to the muffled silence that eventually takes over Ruben’s psyche is chilling, and it is through fine-tuned use of sound that we truly empathize with the characters.
The one small issue with this film is the pacing. “The Sound of Metal,” of course, is not intended to be a fast-paced drama but rather a slow-burn character study. There are moments that feel particularly bloated in their use in runtime in the second act; however, if you are a fan of slower cinema or are just willing to experience the tranquillity of Ruben’s journey, it won’t be a problem at all.
“Sound of Metal” comes out at a time after all of us have had to refine our lives to recontextualize what normal even means. In an instant, the pandemic made everyone lose a fragment of who they once were. We all had to wrestle with new, bleak prospects and reflect on a way of life that seems long gone, and it is in this way that we can all relate to Ruben. We all process grief in our own individual ways, and it is not always a straightforward trajectory; sometimes it can be messy. Just as you think you have adapted to strange circumstances, something comes along that sets you back, and that is okay. If “Sound of Metal” teaches anything, it is that every day is a new day, and we just have to appreciate those moments of stillness along the way.