Addiction, and the need to overcome it, is a driving force in an endless list of films, and The Place Beyond the Pines screenwriter Darius Marder’s directorial debut Sound of Metal is no exception. It’s got a gripping hook: recovering heroin addict Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a raucous punk-metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The two of them spend their lonely days driving around from gig to gig in an RV. While touring on the North Shore of Massachusetts, Ruben realizes that his hearing has begun to deteriorate. Through an effective sound mix that goes in and out of terrifying static and warbled sounds, Ruben tries to deny his situation while Lou’s frustration and anger about her partner’s auditory problems. Ruben is self-destructive to a fault, and every time he goes on stage to drum his heart out, it’s more self-inflicted pain that continues to eat away at him. Ahmed’s nervous look and wide eyes speak volumes about the pain Ruben deals with.
They argue and yell their way through concerts and in their daily lives, to the point where their manager forces Ruben into an isolated deaf persons focused rehab center for recovering addicts that focuses on healing, not hearing. Ruben’s time with the community means getting to know them, and most important of all is Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing in the war after a bombing. Ruben’s desire for surgery to have his auditory issues fixed runs headlong into the tight-knit community’s beliefs that American Sign Language and lip reading is more important than corrective measures performed in a hospital. It’s a battle of minds between Ruben and Joe as to what’s better: to adapt to your new situation, or to try and return to what you once knew, even if it’ll never be the same. Is it better for Ruben to flee back to a compromised version of the past, or should he blaze the trail ahead of him and adapt to his new life?
Ahmed, who learned how to play drums and speak in ASL, is extraordinary in the lead role, balancing all of Ruben’s inner pain and outward frustration with losing his hearing. Despite being given the chance to go the melodramatic route at multiple times, Ahmed keeps Ruben’s emotions restrained like a tightly held drumhead, finding quiet power in the little moments. In a role where many actors would’ve gone for histrionics, Ahmed’s choices help him turn in one of the finest performances of the year. Raci, a child of deaf parents, is equally magnificent as Joe, the philosophical opposite of Ruben. Joe never views his deafness as a disability, but just as a fact of life. The battle between the two of them is one of the best-acted scenes of 2020, as their differing ideologies clash against each other upon Joe learning that Ruben plans to get surgery to fix his hearing. The deaf community barely has any representation in film in the first place, so for a film to remind the world that they don’t view deafness as a disability and a challenge is extremely powerful, and the film’s empathy is perhaps its greatest strength.
Its other greatest strength is perhaps the outright astounding sound mix. Crafted by Marder and sound editor Nicolas Becker, the sound mix ebbs and flows as Ruben’s hearing worsens and worsens. Clear voices and the sound of metal music turns into static wobbles and muffled thumps, and the buzz bleeds into your eardrums. The pair should walk away with golden Oscars next April for their work, and hopefully they will. Sound of Metal is a wonderful entrance into a modified awards season with a magnificent showcase in acting, and it comes highly recommended.
21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.