I remember reading a Twitter thread about a year ago (forgive me, I couldn't find it for the purposes of this review) that was essentially trying to acknowledge and rectify the shortcomings that AMC Theaters wasn't regularly providing for disabled movie-goers. It was one of those eye-opening moments to slap that sense of privilege out just a bit more. I was thinking about that thread a lot when considering my excitement for Darius Marder's 'Sound of Metal,' a new project from Amazon about a drummer gradually succumbing to hearing loss.
Now for me (a drummer who thankfully has his hearing intact), that presented a bit of a weird conundrum. Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a horror fan and this is certainly that on some level to me. But, more than that, while there have been recent projects that have tried to expand on representation for deaf/hard of hearing characters ('A Quiet Place,' 'Baby Driver,' and the 'Creed' films to name a few), this wasn't really going to help push that envelope further, was it?
Well my hopes were partially there because 'Sound of Metal' looked to be one of those prime awards season dramas that just had all the right things going for it. Riz Ahmed has only been getting more exposure as a performer (as he should be) and, as for director Darius Marder, this is the same guy who wrote 'The Place Beyond the Pines,' a movie that I wasn't inherently thrilled by, but took a bulky and risky approach to its multi-story setup that I hoped could be passed on to this project.
I wasn't particularly concerned for a lack of grit or depth here, especially as both Ahmed and Marder have been vocal about striving for a certain brand of authenticity with this project and could actually back it up with some of the casting choices. That certainly doesn't mean everything turns out alright in the end, but the pieces were certainly in place.
Luckily, the movie doesn't pull any punches so neither will I: 'Sound of Metal' is absolutely excellent and deserves all of your time. The best part of saying that is the hindsight because, on paper, the level of schlock and melodrama is written on the walls here. Yet Darius Marder, with some heavy lifting from his sound department, craft a movie that can actually take its stakes and make them intimate, raw, and, at times horrifying through the story. It doesn't do everything right, but it at least strives to be more than the sum of its parts and it lived up to whatever expectations I may have had.
Ruben Stone (played by Riz Ahmed) is the drummer for Blackgammon, a punk band he co-founded with vocalist, guitarist and girlfriend Lou (played by Olivia Cooke). While the duo are on the road for their next major tour, Ruben begins to have bouts of hearing loss that progressively get worse. His doctors warn him that, though there is an implant that could restore his hearing, it is incredibly expensive and he should focus on maintaining his current hearing.
Despite his best efforts, Ruben's performances and mental state begin to diminish. Concerned for his safety, Lou contacts his sponsor who gets him connected with a program led by Joe (played by Paul Raci), a former marine who leads a community for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Everything you've been hearing about the sound design being the star of this movie is 100% true. Intimate is about as accurate as I can describe it, as Marder utilizes the sound as another distinct layer to Ruben as a character. Often, the movie will draw us in to Ruben's head space, chaining us to the fuzzy, progressively piercing white noise and it's incredibly effective. But it'll also do the opposite, pulling us back into the wider world for other perspectives, such as those who have "normal hearing" or whose perspectives are altered by hearing aids. It's simple for sure, but incredibly effective in helping us to identify with the story at hand.
It also helps that Marder actually takes the time for the little things, such as consistent close captioning (very much appreciated by the way), as well as portraying the variety of communication methods and everyday nuances that people in this community face every day. It's not a film that is content with playing the pity card; rather it actually tries to put in the work in addressing the ever-growing conversations around auditory disabilities and the questions around them with, for the most part, no easy answers.
Then we get to Ruben as a character and, wow, it's just so great seeing Riz Ahmed actually utilized as a performer. If the sound is Ruben's soul, Ahmed's physical presence is Ruben's heart and there's not a moment that goes by where it is not right there on the sleeve. Ahmed absolutely disappears into the role, providing us with all of the overwhelming pain and guilt, but never going to far into melodrama. There's a handful of peak moments in the film where Ahmed actually gets to come out of that darkness and be joyful, active, and human, the kind of moments that really elevate the movie beyond that on-paper setup.
That's also not to say nothing of the excellent supporting cast; Olivia Cooke gets some great moments to explore Lou's life outside of her music, Paul Raci is this excellent guiding light to Ruben's demons, and Lauren Ridloff is absolutely delightful in the few scenes we get her in as Diane, a youth counselor (only adding to my excitement for 'The Eternals' next year).
The few places where 'Sound of Metal' doesn't work is mostly towards the third act. Without spoiling anything, there's this sense of alleviated tension the film tries to go for and then, through some character choices, that tension is brought back in new, complicated ways.
Granted, by the film's end, there is definitely a sense of closure to those choices (the discussions of which are way out of my jurisdiction), but I also got the feeling the film was moving a bit too close to "just take the easy way" at times for its own good. I would have also liked to explore Ruben's relationships with some of the other community members just a bit more, especially with how often the film will rely on defining that sense of community and relying mostly on one or two characters.
''Sound of Metal' is almost guaranteed to wind up on my best of the year list and for plentiful reasons. Intimate in both scale and character, with the performances, structure and thematic hooks to sink right in tied together with technical prowess that makes it impossible to turn away. Make no mistake, the road for accessibility in film (and representation of said accessibility) is going to be long and arduous and no one film is ever going to shift that. But game-changer or not, this is something special and I'm certainly going to stand up for a project that actually is willing to go the extra mile, especially when the result is this compelling.
Overall, I give 'Sound of Metal' 9.5/10
Want to follow me on social media? Follow me on Twitter and IG @TheMovieKing45