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Sound of Metal Finds Power Between Silence and Stillness

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

More often than not, simulating deafness in a movie is achieved by simply turning a knob on a sound mixer. Maybe a little ringing sound effect is added to break the total silence and signal the muted conditions. You know these moments, from concussive explosions in war movies to concussive blows in boxing ones. Nevertheless, they’re not very distinct and the effect is reserved for sudden circumstances. 

How many movies really linger on that arresting sensation in greater detail? How many movies portray the slipping volume with a gradual effect? How many make you candidly and tangibly feel the anxiety and confusion of that hazardous state? Most of all, how many trap you in the gravity of its possible permanence with how life must go on without it? 

With rock-heavy undertones replaced by the dramatic struggles of silence, Sound of Metal can personify every one of those questions. This labor-of-love and festival darling debuts on limited release and Amazon Prime on December 4th. Led by a sensational, internalized performance from Riz Ahmed, read here, see on the screen, and hear anyway you can, how this stands as one of the best films of the year.

Lou sings into a microphone on stage.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The Nightcrawler and Venom actor plays Ruben, a laser-focused hard rock drummer, working in tandem with lead singer and long-term partner Lou, played by Olivia Cooke of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. They ramble from gig to gig in an old RV that acts as their home as well. Ruben is a recovering drug addict who’s been clean for four years. Much of that success comes from the loving guidance of Lou, yet money and success remain hard to come by for the fledgling act. 

While contracting his lean muscles and sweating up a storm hitting the skins at a recent show, Ruben’s hearing gives way and goes out. Even after some down time, it’s not returning to full range. Seeing a doctor confirms what years of loud surroundings, minimal protection, and careless behavior have caused, namely considerable hearing loss that will get worse and become permanent. In disbelief, Ruben just wants it all fixed, which is a medical uncertainty. Troubled by this debilitation and carrying an unwillingness to preserve what hearing he has left, Ruben is driven to raise money for a risky and expensive surgery with no guarantees of successful repair. 

Ruben and Joe sit on a porch to talk.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The fear of a substance abuse relapse combines with his hearing impairment to the point where Ruben checks into a rural rehabilitation retreat for specialized therapy, run for the deaf by the benevolent and principled Joe (stage performer Paul Raci, in an award-worthy supporting performance). Here, Ruben discovers a new culture where handicaps don’t need fixing. Joe creates a strict new routine where everyone helps and assigns the very uncomfortable Ruben to shadow a school teacher (Lauren Ridloff) of children learning to communicate.

Paul reads the lips of Ruben intently in his office.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Apropos to his circumstances, the enormously entwined disquiet inside Ruben softens and squelches with time. Slowly but surely, he learns. Though robbed of his passion, he goes from feeling like an outsider to an active and positive contributor. He submits to improved habits as he learns to cope with what’s figuratively broken away from his ears and within the working organs in his head and in the center of his chest.

Convincing within this debilitating fate, at every beat and rest, is Riz Ahmed. His presence represents diversity and inclusion, but his performance transcends those tokens. More flamboyant actors would turn these dramatic hurdles into shouting matches and showy speeches to fill the silence with hot air. That’s not so with Ahmed in Sound of Metal

The actor carries an ever-present, galvanized intensity as a man of few words adamant to refuse this impaired destiny. His shell of agitation is astounding as it heals. Every little step of acceptance of those prospects brings out powerful new emotions from Riz. In addition to learning drums and ASL, his courage and commitment in this role is unquestioned for well-earned Oscar consideration. Those esteemed qualities are equaled by writer and first-time director Darius Marder (co-screenwriter of Derek Cianfrance’s hardscrabble opus The Place Beyond the Pines), who fought hard to make this tribute of a film.

Ruben looks up and back at Lou
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Sound of Metal all comes back to the inescapable shifts of its auditory ordeal. Marder and his assisting filmmakers employed brilliant sound design to imitate the deaf experience through more than simple mixes and ringing cliches. Staying virtually scoreless, co-musical composer and veteran foley artist Nicolas Becker (Gravity) served as a supervisor alongside sound editor Maria Carolina Santana Caraballo-Gramcko (The Sisters Brothers) to create an audio-scape of Ruben’s highs and lows. By immersing the audience in the same slipping weakness, the disorientation is jarring and palpable on a superior level. The slow-boiling panic becomes shared and the uneasy stillness subtly raises hairs more than any banging percussion or slayed guitar.

Speaking of stillness and silence, there is a tremendous weight of heart and profundity found in the difference between those two states in Sound of Metal. Silence is merely a setting of a setting, so to speak. Not all internal and external turmoil makes noise. Stillness is when all the triggers of carried and imposed unrest are managed or absent. It is not an impossible calmness, but where comfort and happiness are truly found. That sensitive trait of stillness is what Joe wishes for Ruben, and stands as the ideal state of mind and body that Ruben has to harness for personal peace. The journey to that place here is fraught with passionate fights and haunting hope, a movie experience not soon forgotten. 

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson," our offshoot of Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com publications. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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