Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is decently forthright and unsentimental
The refreshing thing about Sound of Metal is that it doesn’t pretend things don’t suck when they do. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for the two-person band Blackgammon he shares with girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), is rapidly losing his hearing. As his doctor says, it doesn’t really matter how or why; this is the fact of his life now. Cochlear implants might help, but they’re expensive, and Ruben isn’t rich. Eventually he finds himself at a place hidden out in the sticks, run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci) as a retreat for those with deafness and addiction issues, both of which describe Ruben.
Riz Ahmed brings an itchy, impatient intensity to Ruben, who just wants to fix his deafness. Joe disagrees; he feels the path to healing should focus more on sitting with the disability — and getting realistic about how it limits you and how it doesn’t — than on seeking to make it go away. This has been a conflict in every disabled community for years; I once worked with someone whose son was disabled, and who used to side-eye Christopher Reeve because he seemed, she felt, to agitate more for finding a cure for spinal injury than for, say, accessibility or generally making the lives of disabled people easier. Director/cowriter Darius Marder seems to understand this eternal heated conversation from the inside out, and has forged a gripping drama from it.
Once Ruben settles in at Joe’s retreat (after a kind of time-wasting bit where he declines to go there, and we’re sitting there waiting for this section to be over because if Ruben didn’t go to the retreat the movie would be very short), I expected Sound of Metal to go soggy and dull, like a bowl of life-affirming gruel. But it stays spiky and tough-minded; Darius Marder is a son of Massachusetts, but his sensibility seems really European in its indifference to sentimentality. Perhaps, then, it’s apropos that the third act brings in Mathieu Amalric, whose features speak of sad, intimate knowledge of the world’s cruelties, and sometimes this makes his character relatable and sometimes sinister; here, as Lou’s moneybags French dad, he manages to suggest both.
Marder also gets a great performance from Paul Raci, a character actor whose face I didn’t recognize; I simply took him for a deaf actor (he isn’t, but learned ASL to communicate with his deaf parents). Tapped for most likely the meatiest role he’s ever had, Raci underplays and puts across a kind of relaxed authenticity, such as we might associate with a Richard Farnsworth or a Sam Elliott. Joe is extremely plain-spoken, and will not bother with a less than honest statement because he knows conversation is difficult enough without having to factor lies into it. Joe’s place is church-sponsored, but there’s no proselytizing. Ruben goes in unreligious and comes out the same way, though there’s no question he’s undergone some kind of spiritual journey.
If Sound of Metal doesn’t at least win an Oscar for Best Sound, the award has no meaning. Frequently, Marder takes us inside Ruben’s experience as the aural world around him turns into muffled distortion, receding maddeningly into a cotton-candy fog of silence. The soundscape has more personality and terror than anything since Alan Splet’s work for David Lynch. We also hear what cochlear implants do to sound, piping its buzzy approximation to the brain, like the tasteless teleported steak in The Fly — it gets the basics of sound but not the warmth, the music. Sound of Metal does shake out as the inspirational tale of a guy who realizes he has to learn to live in the world he’s found himself in, but the insight is hard-won and earned. It feels specific and therefore universal.