Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is many things—brilliantly acted and finely crafted, but above all, Sound of Metal is unique in its profound empathy, empathy for its characters, for its themes, and the world it inhabits—a welcome relief and a transcendent cinematic experience.
In the film’s opening moments, we meet Riz Ahmed’s Ruben, tanned, tattooed, and drumming away in the midst of a heavy metal concert, a musician on the brink of breaking big. What you’re expecting is a film that follows the beats of a traditional music drama —a tour, drugs, and a barrage of women. Sound of Metal is not that story. Ruben’s hearing is rapidly deteriorating. The more he drums, the more he risks further damage to his diminished auditory ability. The life he envisioned for himself is gone. Sound of Metal is about reacting to a new reality that feels too harsh and the seemingly impossible journey to true acceptance.
At the urging of his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben leaves his tour, moving into a community for the deaf and hard of hearing. Once again, the film subverts your expectations. There is no cheesy montage and no gimmicky displays of disability. Sound editor Nicolas Becker and his team use sound like a character in the film, the sound design shifting with Ruben’s hearing, allowing you to hear the world as he does. Dialogue and other mundane sounds become fuzzier and fainter as the film continues, thrusting you into Ruben’s frustration. Marder is patient in his storytelling, allowing Ruben space to struggle, to feel, and express his rage. He is no caricature, which is a testament to Ahmed’s incredible performance. In Ruben, Ahmed has created a deeply nuanced, deeply human character. It’s a grand transformation anchored by the intimate moments of something deeply personal. Ruben must redefine his talent, his masculinity, his relationships with others, and his own self-worth, with all of those insecurities playing across Ahmed’s face and in his soulful gaze.
Veteran actor Paul Raci is also fantastic as the mentor championing Ruben to rebuild his life. Ahmed should find himself very much in the thick of the Best Actor conversation; with any justice, Paul Raci’s place in the Supporting Actor race will be cemented as well. Raci infuses his character with warmth challenging Ruben’s assumptions of what it means to lead a happy and fulfilled life. The film does not work without Raci’s kind presence, the embodiment of a happiness that feels out of Ruben’s reach.
Sound of Metal, Marder grapples with those same questions: What do you do when life looks different than what you thought it would? What does it mean to be flawed? What does it mean to be human? Perhaps the very nature of the human condition means the answers will remain out of reach, but the Sound of Metal dared to ask, and most importantly, challenged its audience to rethink their answer.