Sound of Metal has been making waves at film festivals around the world and has recently garnered multiple nominations for both BAFTAs and Oscars. It’s easy to see why it’s earned such acclaim. Despite that pugnacious title, this is a surprisingly gentle and reflective film and it’s also, I think, rather unique. It’s fair to say that I’ve never seen another movie quite like it.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a heavy metal duo, providing the beat for his singer/guitarist girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), to vocalise over. The two of them are in the middle of a big tour, driving around America in Ruben’s RV and looking forward to the releasing of their new album. From the brief performance we witness over the opening credits, it’s clear that Blackgammon devote considerably more attention to their amplification than they do to their songs – but they do manage to create a thumping, propulsive sound that has stirred up a sizeable following.
Ruben and Lou are both former drug addicts, and are just about managing to stay clean, despite all the temptations they encounter on tour.
And then, just before going onstage one night, Ruben suffers a sudden and catastrophic loss of hearing. He has to get through the ensuing performance on autopilot, but it’s evident to Lou that something isn’t right. Afterwards, he confesses his problem to her, and she insists that they contact their sponsor, Hector, to see what can be done about the situation. Meanwhile, Ruben visits a hearing specialist, who advises him that he needs to avoid loud noise at all costs – tricky, to say the least – and also mentions the possibility of cochlear implants, an operation that costs thousands of dollars, but which could give Ruben back some degree of hearing.
In the meantime, he is despatched to a rural shelter for deaf, recovering addicts, run by the taciturn Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his own hearing in the Vietnam War. Joe insists that Ruben can only stay at the retreat alone – or not at all, should he decide to have those implants. Joe is adamant that deafness is not a handicap and that surgery is the wrong approach. He advises Ruben to sit alone, to learn sign language and to experience his own ‘stillness.’
Ruben struggles to engage with the latter and though he starts to make progress at the retreat, he is still torn about the thought of those implants… and he thinks he can see a possible way to pay for them.
Sound of Metal is full of unexpected delights, one of which is – ironically – the soundtrack. Not the song that Blackgammon play, mind, but the incidental effects, which it took fifteen technicians to create. Elaborate soundscapes are featured throughout the film, alternating between the rich textures of nature and the weird, twisted versions that Ruben receives as his hearing begins to deteriorate. The most vivid example is at Lou’s birthday party, hosted by her musician father, Richard (Mathieu Almeric), where the sound cuts from a pretty duet performed by Lou and Richard, to the desecrated travesty that Ruben can actually hear. It’s the film’s most poignant moment.
It’s more than just the sound, though. Ahmed (who currently appears to be one of the busiest actors in the business) does a terrific job of portraying Ruben’s mounting terror as the thing he loves most in the world – the music that he and Lou create together- is cruelly taken away from him.
This won’t be for everyone – and that misleading title doesn’t really help – but it’s well worth the watch.