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Often, it’s less about the things you do and more about the things you choose not to do. That statement serves as both a literal synopsis of Sound of Metal’s thematic message and also as a figurative analysis of how the film avoided becoming derivative, award-baiting fiddle faddle.
Although writer/director Darius Marder’s character study is a nuanced, thoughtful, surprisingly delicate exploration of the horrifying recalibrations life often demands of us, my goodness are just there so many ways in which it could have sucked. Here are just some of them:
- With a plot about a drummer going deaf, Sound of Metal could have either slunk into punk cliches or presented the grimy subculture as too squeaky clean. Instead, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are believable rockers who sport tattoos, self-harm wounds, and vast amounts of empathy and kindness.
- Ruben’s initial hearing loss could have been a showy bit of artistic piffle. Instead, Marder lets muffled audio do the muffled talking. Who knows how medically precise that is, but the depiction feels authentic in a way that’s more responsible.
- Speaking of showy, Ahmed could have given into the Nicholas Cage-ian urges most would have surrendered to when playing a recovering heroin addict who goes deaf. His brief fits of outrage don’t feel like grandiose gestures designed to be played as his nomination is read aloud on Oscar night. Instead, they feel pretty believable for a dude losing a life he carefully curated to keep his worst demons at bay.
- The relationship between Ruben and Lou could have been hella gross. Instead, the pathological need to fashion a cis hetero love story as the crux of every tale of drug abuse or disability is actually mostly resisted here. In some ways, the resolution of their shared story reads like an eloquent rebuttal to most of that schlock.
- The recovery house in which Ruben learns to both “be deaf” and find peace could have felt forced, artificial, and glossy. Instead, Joe (Paul Raci) is a palpably real sponsor, and the others in the program ooze sincerity. Marder doesn’t hand out a single subplot, but the anguished and restrained strife between Ruben and Joe is gut-punchingly good.
- Deafness could have been presented in an insulting, reductive, demoralizing fashion. Instead, not only did Ahmed apparently put in the work to deliver an accurate performance, the film has been praised for its inclusive casting and passionate advocacy for the deaf community.
Setting aside all the sidestepped mines, Sound of Metal has a tender, well-earned conclusion that goes beyond grappling with a loss of one key sense. Had Marder probed more into Ruben’s peers in recovery and tightened some of the meandering middle, it would have been among the best films of the year. As it is, Sound of Metal is quasi-profound and should absolutely earn Ahmed the right to lose to Delroy Lindo for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars.
Grade = A-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Roxana Hadadi at Pajiba says the film asks “How do our lives become something entirely different from what we anticipated, and who do we become as a result?”
Lauren Coates at Culturess says “Sound of Metal is the kind of achingly honest and impactful film that will stay with you for months.”
Julio Fernando Navas at Cinema Ecuador says the film is “a virtuous and poignant opera prima that should put Marder’s name on the map.”
Courtney Small at Cinema Axis says that, in the film, “disability is not something that boxes one in, but rather it is the key to unlocking a whole new sense of community.”