Sound of Metal is a groundbreaking presentation of the deaf experience anchored by one of the finest performances of 2020, Dan Slevin reports.
Just before New Year I wrote in these pages that Soul was possibly my favourite film of the year. I’d actually originally drafted that as more certain but decided to hedge slightly when we saw Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal the following night.
While both films are about how ‘finding your purpose’ and ‘holding on to your dreams at any cost’ are ultimately damaging and wasteful ways to live your life – especially if it means not being present for those around you – stylistically they couldn’t be more different.
Soul is an extraordinary statement about the imagination of the modern animator. Sound of Metal is a gritty drama with powerful performances set in two worlds we don’t see portrayed on screen very often – the modern day metal scene and the world of the deaf.
The staggeringly gifted British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Rogue One) plays Ruben, a drummer in a two-piece metal band in which his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) screams while he bashes the skins like a man possessed. They have a following but, like many musicians, it is a hand-to-mouth existence, travelling to the next gig in their motor home kitted out with recording gear.
Ruben is a recovering addict – clean since he met Lou who is keenly aware of how precarious Ruben’s sobriety is and how dependent it is on her. When he wakes up one morning with severe hearing loss, he finds a doctor who tells him that his kind of damage doesn’t heal but that for small fortune, maybe one day he could get implants – a ray of hope that he clings to throughout the film.
Lou can’t handle Ruben’s disconnection from the reality of his situation – or the risk of him relapsing – and takes him to a rehab centre especially for the deaf community. There, Ruben meets the wise old counsellor Joe, played by Paul Raci, and is confronted with the reality of his situation.
I’ve never seen a film quite like Sound of Metal, one that uses cinema so effectively to recreate the effect of a disability. The sound design (destined for some kind of Academy Award recognition) is extraordinary and the way it moves so quickly from real world sound to a deeply disconcerting impression of the sound that Ruben is hearing is masterful.
Often these days, you will find pushback from marginalised communities over casting abled, cis or incorrect ethnicities in movies but the deaf community – at least as far as I have read – is totally behind Ahmed and Sound of Metal. Partly because the film does such a good job of portraying their condition and then cast so many from the deaf community in other roles, but also because Ahmed himself is so utterly convincing.
Sound of Metal isn’t just a leap forward in the presentation of disability on screen, it’s also a heart-breaking human story of how to find yourself when you think you are losing everything. The final shot is just so perfect that I could barely believe it. Written and directed by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal is a brilliant achievement and easily one of the best films of 2020.
Sound of Metal is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. It doesn’t have a New Zealand classification (as far as I can see) but in Australia it is rated M for Mature Themes and Coarse Language.