Sound of Metal is an engrossing movie with a few dropped beats.
I was a bit surprised to see Sound of Metal on the Oscar’s list. I didn’t expect the Academy to fall in love with the story of a heavy metal drummer. After it got a nod, I was intrigued to check it out.
I will say that Sound of Metal rewarded my curiosity by being relentlessly engaging. Good, bad, or ugly, every scene really had my undivided attention and made me really struggle over how to judge the film. I think it does a lot of things well. I also think it does a few key things poorly. At the end of the day, I think it’s worth watching, but there’s a lot to chew over by the time the curtain falls.
Sound of Metal (2020)
During a series of adrenaline-fueled one-night gigs, itinerant punk-metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) begins to experience intermittent hearing loss. When a specialist tells him his condition will rapidly worsen, he thinks his music career — and with it his life — is over. His bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) checks the recovering heroin addict into a secluded sober house for the deaf in hopes it will prevent a relapse and help him learn to adapt to his new situation. But after being welcomed into a community that accepts him just as he is, Ruben has to choose between his equilibrium and the drive to reclaim the life he once knew.
Point of View.
One thing Sound of Metal does that immediately grabs you is situate not just the perspective but the very experience of the film through Ruben’s eyes and ears. It can be uncomfortable (during the early scenes of Ruben and Lou playing, I could easily understand why he went deaf…and I got to say I didn’t mind the volume being turned down on those songs.) It can also be enlightening as we experience, as much as is possible by clever sound work, Ruben’s new world of reduced hearing and eventual silence. It makes the experience visceral and immediate, and is pulled of with a lot of technical panache.
On the flip side, we’re so deeply tied to Ruben’s experience, that his problematic behavior is not only uncomfortable to witness, but frustrating. It’s like being strapped into the passenger seat with an erratic and possibly suicidal driver, and you’re powerless to grab the wheel. Artistically its daring; experientally it can be a nightmare in places.
The soundwork, as noted, drives much of the voltage of the story and is handled terrifically. It plays with sound and silence in ways that grow your appreciation for each. Besides me disliking Ruben’s music, no complaints.
The cinematography goes from adequate to great in spots. The film excels at long tracking shots, close shots, and creating evocative long shots. It reminded me a bit of the beautiful and devastating camera work in another Oscar contender, Nebraska. Sometimes the reliance on these techniques overstays its welcome, just as some of scenes introducing a new sound technique feels overly drawn out, but overall it was effective.
One thorny area about any film using non-deaf actors to portray dead characters is will it feel authentic and respectful. I think Sound of Metal passes that test; the entire production from top to bottom seems passionate about getting it right, hiring many deaf actors, and if casting a non-deaf actor then making sure they did their part justice. Riz Ahmed put in a ton of time immersing himself in the experience and community, and Paul Raci (whose performance as the sponsor of a deaf community for recovering addicts was the linchpin of the film) grew up in an household with deaf parents and was fluent in sign language.
On the other hand, I think the film too often focuses Ruben as a recovering addict instead of a person entering the deaf community. So much of his problematic behavior is addict behavior, and the film kinda starts to be more about that aspect of his identity. At times it can feel like this is an addiction story that just so happens to coincide with Ruben losing his hearing, and many of the tropes of that genre really take over the narrative. It’s not completely problematic, but I think it can sometimes hijack your focus.
I enjoyed Sound of Metal on a technical level, and I also though the performances really stood out. A few pacing issues, mostly through overuse of certain elements, made the ride a little bumpy. I also wrestled with feelings that deafness started to stand in as a metaphor for other issues, which threatened all of the work put into experiencing and exploring how Ruben comes to know himself anew as deaf. Overall, it’s a taut and visceral movie that explores some great territory, even if it sometimes wanders a bit off the beat.