Sound of Metal M. 120 minutes. 4 stars.
For a professional drummer, exposure to loud noise is an occupational hazard.
In Darius Marder's Oscar-nominated film Sound of Metal, that long-term exposure leaves drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) with deteriorating hearing and impending complete deafness.
As the film opens, Ruben is performing on stage with his girlfriend and muse Lou (Olivia Cooke) as the signs of his hearing loss manifest itself. For us the viewers, we hear the noise level and sharpness change along with Ruben.
The drummer is told by his audiologist that his hearing is about to go for good, and his sponsor advises that his best option to adapt to his new soundless world is to spend some months at a rehab centre for the deaf run by a surly and well-intentioned Vietnam veteran Joe (Paul Raci).
Here Ruben begins to learn American sign language and establishes relationships and a sense of community, particularly with the children in his class who he in turn teaches to drum.
Joe asks Ruben to embrace stillness and to spend time writing, but Ruben cannot give up the sense that hearing loss equals defeat, and he spends a fortune he doesn't have on an operation that might return some approximate hearing. For Ruben's new community, many of whom do not enjoy the same options, this is something of a slap in the face.
Ruben is a recovering heroin addict who seems to have moved his addiction on to a co-dependent relationship with his performer partner Lou, a partner with a career going places fast. We worry along with him what this long-term isolation and estrangement away in his rehab centre might mean.
Sound of Metal was produced by Amazon and has been available on their streaming services since Christmas but is headed back to some cinemas this week in anticipation of a handful of awards at the upcoming Oscars on April 26. The film can be appreciated equally in both settings, but I have watched it twice now and really enjoyed listening through my ear buds, which helped me fully experience the immersive sound design created by Nicolas Becker and team. They build positional sound based on how various characters hear, and they switch back and forward to help us understand the world Ruben now finds himself in, and they have deservedly been nominated for the best sound Oscar.
Riz Ahmed is the hot tip to win the best actor Oscar in coming weeks. He looks so amazing with bleached and cropped hair and a body covered in tattoos, I hope he keeps them in every film to come. His performance is mesmerising, his beautiful eyes betraying every emotion Ruben rides as he feels his world slipping away from him.
Also nominated is his co-star Paul Raci, who grew up the hearing son of deaf parents, is fluent in American sign language and has performed in deaf theatre for many years. It's a career-changing moment for the character actor and his performance as Joe shines with warmth.
Director Darius Marder penned the screenplay for the Ryan Gosling film The Place Beyond the Pines and with Sound of Metal makes a lauded directing debut. Marder focuses his camera close on Ahmed's face throughout the film as Ruben battles conflicting emotions, but much of the film's power comes from Marder's community of professional and amateur performers at the rehab and school Ruben spends time in.
Marder's adviser on deaf representation and his creative assistant behind-the-scenes, Jeremy Stone, enjoys some scenes as Ruben's sign teacher.
The director's choice to shoot the film on 35mm adds texture to the way the film looks on screen. The director has a background in documentary and the film enjoys a stylistic sisterhood with any number of music documentaries.
Sound of Metal's explorations of grief, acceptance and of progression are a rewarding experience and as we've all just spent the better part of a year learning to accept and adapt to change foisted upon us, the film's messages are additionally resonant.