Weighty Themes Explored in ‘Sound of Metal’
Acceptance, community take center stage in Best Picture nominee
By Todd Hill
(4 stars out of 5)
I had no real knowledge of “Sound of Metal” until I learned that the film had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. And that was all I really knew about it when I saw the movie, apart from the barest summation of its plot. I was only aware that it was about a guy who loses his hearing.
Is that the best way to encounter an motion picture, just out of the blue? I’ve always thought so, even though I’ve also known it’s often not possible. But maybe because this is how I first became acquainted with “Sound of Metal,” I can’t now think about the film or write about it without becoming emotional over my recollection of how it first made me feel.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a metal band that consists of just he and his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), on guitar and vocals. They’re pretty small-time, playing minor venues in middle America, tooling around in their anything-but-spacious motor home, which happens to bring to mind another Best Picture nominee of this year, “Nomadland.” They’re also both drug addicts, a few years clean.
Ruben and Lou are deeply attached to each other, and although the few minutes of introductory exposition we get don’t necessarily depict a lifestyle we would envy, it’s also suggested these two are in a far better place than they likely were before we meet them, which probably explains their attachment.
One day Ruben experiences ringing in his ears for several seconds and dismisses it, as this experience probably isn’t unusual for someone in his line of work. But not long after he wakes up in the morning with nearly all of his hearing gone; he’s soon to learn that it’s never coming back.
We’ve all seen movies about an addict’s journey. Some are better than others, of course, but they’ve become a cheap film subgenre over the years and most of the efforts are essentially a dime a dozen. Initially, that’s where “Sound of Metal” appeared headed for me, and I wasn’t particularly interested. But while there are undeniable similarities between coming to grips with addiction and a profound disability like complete hearing loss, nobody beats deafness.
Not that Ruben doesn’t try. He eventually saves his pennies and spends a fortune on cochlear implants, which essentially just allow him to hear noise distortion, and the saddest moment in the film is when we’re allowed to hear alongside Ruben what that world actually sounds like. Kudos, by the way, for some truly exemplary work by the sound engineers who worked on this picture.
We spend the core of the movie watching Ruben gradually come to terms with the new parameters of his life at a rural shelter of sorts with other deaf adults, where he learns American Sign Language and falls under the tutelage of a guru-type figure portrayed wonderfully by Paul Raci, one of those performances we sometimes get by an unknown actor that’s as good or better than any delivered by the most heralded in the profession.
Cooke isn’t given much to do here beyond looking profoundly worried and sad, and then her character essentially disappears from the film, as she must. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Ahmed before seeing “Sound of Metal,” which he’s charged with carrying on his shoulders by appearing in literally every scene. His Oscar nomination for Best Actor is richly deserved.
Inevitably, “Sound of Metal” details a journey of acceptance, but it also emphasizes the importance of found communities for all of us as individuals. Ruben doesn’t arrive there easily (if he did, there would be no movie). As soon as his hearing is lost, he realizes of course that things have changed (drumming in a band, for instance, is out). But it takes him much longer to come to terms with the fact that literally his entire life has been transformed by his deafness, and that he and it will never be the same.
When that awareness finally hits home, it does so like a quiet (no pun intended) revelation, for us as an audience as well as Ruben. I know he’s just a character in a movie, but I really hope he’ll be OK going forward. I think he will be.
2 hours. Rated R for language throughout and brief nude images. Debuted Dec. 4, 2020 on Amazon
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat. For his longer articles on all the Academy Award Best Picture nominees, visit Oscar Bait, or https://medium.com/oscar-bait.