Don’t let the raging opening minutes of Sound of Metal fool you: this film is anything but loud in the best possible way. Following the story of Ruben, a drummer in a metal band who loses his hearing and must find himself again in a rehab facility for the deaf, Sound of Metal refuses to give in to melodrama, always choosing the more subtle option over Oscar-bait breakdowns. Watching the film, I was struck by how the silence and stillness in each frame gave the characters room to breathe, forcing the audience to slow down. The pacing is unhurried, even as the audience feels Ruben’s desperation grow frantic early on as his hearing slowly slips away. The cinematographer Daniël Bouquet and director/writer Darius Marder seem determined to let the camera linger on each moment, forcing the audience to rely on subtle visual cues and acting choices to get into the state of mind of its leads. The sound design also plays a huge role, with sound designer Nicolas Becker (Gravity) using innovative techniques to put us inside Ruben’s head (I highly recommend watching with headphones).
The entire cast is excellent, but Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, and Paul Raci all do exemplary work. Ahmed is the center of the story — without his serious commitment, the film would fall apart. Much has been made of Ahmed’s dedication to learning ASL and even drumming for the part, but what drew me in to the story was his intuitive understanding of Ruben. His every mannerism is carefully considered, with tension in his body slowly releasing as the story moves forward. It’s a stunning performance that should confirm his status as one of the best actors of his generation.
Olivia Cooke also deserves mention for her performance as Ruben’s girlfriend Lou, which balances Ruben’s jitteriness with a concerned sadness. Cooke has been steadily making a name for herself for years in films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, not to mention television shows like Bates Motel and Vanity Fair. Yet she somehow hasn’t had that massive breakthrough role, and with any luck Sound of Metal will be it. Cooke’s Lou is a lost soul who is trying to do the right thing for the person she cares about most, and her heartbreaking scenes with Ruben are some of the film’s best.
But the strongest work is courtesy of Paul Raci, who plays Joe, a veteran who lost his hearing fighting in Vietnam. Joe is in recovery like Ruben and owns the community where Ruben goes to build his new normal. Joe is fair but tough, the type of father figure Ruben needs as he reevaluates his entire life. But Joe also finds himself at the center of Ruben’s biggest conflict: whether or not to pursue getting the expensive cochlear implants that could restore some of his hearing, but would also alienate him from his new friends. As Ruben struggles to make his choice, Raci and Ahmed share the screen for a sobering conversation that demonstrates how good Raci is. Joe sees stillness and silence not as a burden but as a way to embrace the pauses in life, but Ruben is too much of a live wire to appreciate the quiet moments. Neither one is clearly in the right, but their viewpoints reflect deeply held beliefs. It’s a reckoning between two people who have become close and yet so far from each other, and the devastation on both Raci and Ahmed’s faces is painful to watch as they work through their issues.
Sound of Metal is an all-around brilliant film, from both a technical perspective and an emotional one. Anchored by strong performances and direction, it makes the case for stopping and living in the still moments life has to offer.
Sound of Metal is available now on Amazon Prime Video. Check out the trailer below!