Most of us would call losing one of our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch — an unmitigated tragedy. This, at least, would be our first thought. Gutted by loss, driven to tears — our ability to savor the joy and wonder of life sharply reduced and never to return.
But of course, the body gradually compensates. And so does the spirit.
Darius Marder‘s Sound of Metal tells the story of a heavy metal drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), suddenly confronted with all-but-total hearing loss. And of course, freaking out and desperate for a cure, he sinks into denial and despair, before ultimately learning how to live with his new identity.
Ruben’s power-chord-playing partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) takes him to a sober house for the deaf, a bucolic retreat for hearing-loss victims run by Joe (Paul Raci), a 60-something Vietnam veteran. Ruben settles in, learns to “sign,” and even becomes a member of the family. Joe eventually offers him a permanent job at the house, but Ruben is determined to get cochlear implant surgery. He sells his touring van and drums and has the surgery, but his subsequent “hearing” is tinny and agitating.
The long and short is that Ruben finally comes to understand that deafness is not a handicap, but, if accepted and engaged with, a doorway to a certain enhancement.
Sound of Metal is a home-run for Ahmed, a performance that says “wait…this is it…this is me.”
The first time I noticed Ahmed was at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010, when I saw him play a homegrown British terrorist in Four Lions. The next standout was his performance as Jake Gyllenhaal‘s half-assistant, half-colleague in Dan Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler (’14). Then came Rogue One (’16), in which he played Bodhi Rook, an Imperial cargo pilot who defects to the rebels. Then a bizarrely named 19th Century character (Hermann Kermit Warm) in Jacques Audiard‘s nihilistic, negligible The Sisters Brothers. And then, finally, Marder’s Sound of Metal.
I also believe that Paul Raci, Ruben’s straight-shooting mentor at the sober house for the deaf, deserves a Best Supporting Actor nom. Raci, whose parents were deaf, intimately understands the deaf community, and is perfect in the part. Like Harold Russell was perfect in The Best Years of Our Lives, I mean. Raci is actually a blend of Russell and Lives costar Hoagy Carmichael.
Sound of Metal is an absorbing and quite delicate film about using tragedy to transition from one world to another, and one that offers a doorway into a spirit world — a realm of cosmic serenity and stillness…a place that expresses the age-old axiom “never speak unless you can improve upon the silence.” Radiance is everywhere.
The bottom line is that Sound of Metal is easily the most spiritual Best Picture contender. It’s the only contender that says “look beyond the noise…look within.” It contains arias, symphonies, multitudes.
Sound of Metal uses innovative sound design to mimic the experience of hearing loss. Marder and Supervising Sound Editor Nicolas Becker drew upon extensive research into how hearing loss actually sounds, and began work on it a year before any other crew members were brought onto the film. The sound design team — lead by Becker and production sound mixer Phillip Bladh — definitely deserve Oscar noms, and…oh, hell, the Oscars themselves.
Also excellent are Olivia Cooke as Lou, Ruben’s singing-bandmate girlfriend who insists that he go to the sober house for the deaf, and Mathieu Amalric as her wealthy French dad.
There’s a moment when Ruben and Lou realize that they can’t resume their relationship, and it’s performed without a single line of explanation or descriptive dialogue…it’s one of the saddest breakup scenes I’ve ever seen.