Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Average dude is really talented at something they love, then an accident and/or disability sets them back a bit, then, after others melodramatically recite the type of “uplifting” quotes you’d find plastered to the wall of any given Rite-Aid, gets back on the game with more passion than ever before, only with a wiser (and, depending on how their life was beforehand, more wholehearted) spirit. At least, that’s what my mind thought the much-praised Sound of Metal would be like, leading to me putting it off for quite some time. If there ever comes a time which such decisions will make me want to kick myself harder, boy, will my legs ever be sore afterwards.
During the first few minutes of Sound of Metal, all we can hear is exactly that. There’s honestly no real way of describing how viscerally soul-shaking this noise is, but in the wrong hands, it still could’ve been the kind of “movie-noise” that, say, a couple folks in the background could’ve chattered over without having to raise their voices very much. Thankfully, director Darius Marder is well-aware of how less startlingly intense the scene would be if a single word could be made out from anybody, so the pounding aural assault is mixed so high that all other sensations are virtually obliterated from existence—even if every other person on Earth happened to be screaming in unison.
Through the disorienting haze of flashing neon lights (epileptics and Gaspar Noé haters, stay far away) and violent, distorted instruments, we can make out a concert performed by a hard-as-ice drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), and his throat-tearing, guitar-shredding girlfriend, Lou. They may only be an army of two, but in this scene alone, they make enough noise for twenty. Then a day or two later, Ruben’s hearing suddenly starts melting away.
A doctor advises the now-mostly-deaf man to put a good amount of distance between him and any loud sound, only for his words to be entirely spoken in vain. Following in the footsteps of Waves’ Tyler Williams, the musician immediately jumps back into the very pleasure that’s causing him so much pain, increasing the amount of oppressive silence his eardrums can now only sense.
There are many ways in which this decline could have been cheesily or patronizingly presented, but much like the rest of the film, it’s unflinching, yet unjudging and—believe it or not—genuinely moving. In fact, every scene stepping back and letting us se—I mean hear—the world from Ruben’s perspective is so consistently phenomenal that, at the risk of sounding too artsy-fartsy, I can’t help but wonder what Sound of Metal would’ve been like if most (or even all) of it had been presented that way, à la The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (a film I loved, but inexplicably haven’t bother writing a review for yet). The degree to which it’s sort of stuck in the middle, while clearly done to make the film more accessible, can’t help feeling awkward at points, no matter how much I try ignoring that particular aspect of it.
As a whole, though, the film’s real issues aren’t huge. The Oscar-winning editing, while very solid for the most part, occasionally feels a tad clunky (for instance, when Ruben storms out of that diner towards the beginning, I would’ve preferred the camera staying on that excellent wide shot of Lou before going back to him, not needlessly cutting to her face), and things do start dragging a bit once Ruben starts taking up residence at a camp for disabled people. Important parts of the narrative happen at this location, so this (pretty large) chunk of the story being cut out obviously would’ve been impossible, but I couldn’t help worrying that the rest of the movie would pull a Nomadland and, much to the detriment of the excellently nerve-wracking setup, focus on unevenful going-ons there while barely bothering to move the plot forward.
Speaking of Nomadland (which I initially liked, but my feelings about have honestly soured with the passing of time—especially after it won Best Picture), much like how that film weaves real-life nomads into its fictionalized story (not much resembling a plot happens, so I honestly doubt to even call it that), a large number of Sound of Metal’s cast was hired straight from the deaf community, but not in a way that smugly pats them on the head or lazily lumps them all into one faceless, “aren’t-disabled-people-special?” façade of what deaf people are actually like. Nobody’s simply there to overcome their own “issues”, or tearfully ramble some sad story from their past; if anything, they’re far more likely to be giggling over nude drawings or taking brisk walks than wallowing in misery.
Ahmed may not be deaf himself, but thanks in no small part to him learning American Sign Language each day for eight months, he seamlessly replicates the crushing, impossibly confusing feeling of every audial sensation being ripped away from you. Pitting his work here against his fantastic supporting turn in Nightcrawler would be like pitting two opposing galaxies against each other anyway, but even after memories of that film start drifting back, there’s no contest. Unless there’s another performance of his that tops it, this has to be his career’s finest hour.
In fact, I couldn’t help wishing that more about Ruben’s background, passion for music, and past drug problems were explored later, a need which a certain monologue towards the end—more specifically, one spoken by his dad—fails to really fulfill. Regardless, the tense anger simmering in this tough, yet broken man is richly complemented by Daniel Bouquet’s gorgeously dour cinematography, not to mention there (mostly) being no score whatsoever.
All of that is amplified by the way everything finally pans out, which, as (mostly) great as everything else was, I was grimly expecting to be one giant, unbearably sappy “inspirational-movie” cliché for the sake of pleasing the widest range of audiences. The direction things actually head may leave a slightly bitter aftertaste in their mouths, but not only are the closing events admirably grounded and mature, but also put Ruben’s entire struggle into perspective so powerfully that days after that final shot left the screen, it’s still impossible to not marvel at their subversive ingenuity. My first reaction upon the sudden cut-to-black may have been “Wait, the film’s gonna end here?”, but after the split second it took me to realize that this was, in fact, literally the best possible place it could end, this momentary confusion turned to warm, overwhelming satisfaction.
At the end of the day, some may argue that the general path Sound of Metal’s story screeches its way down is still too well-trodden overall, making the film’s inclusion in a very prestigious company like the Criterion Collection rather strange. And sure, it may seem a little out-of-place there, but if that means more people will see this heartwrenchingly, er, offbeat portrait of such difficult subject matter, I really have nothing to complain about. Bring it on.