What’s it like to lose the thing that you felt was the most important part of your life? That’s one of the many questions that Sound of Metal left me considering.
The story opens with Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) traveling the country in a cluttered RV. Lou is a singer. Ruben is a drummer. They perform under the name Blackgammon. Their life is about traveling from gig to gig, playing their own unique music. It’s not exactly a glamorous life but, as the first few minutes of Sound of Metal makes clear, it’s a life that they both love.
Or, at least, they do until Ruben starts to lose his hearing. (When Ruben goes to see a doctor, he’s told that he’s basically only picking up on 20% of the sounds around him and that it’s only going to get worse.) At first, Ruben tries to keep Lou from discovering what’s happening but it doesn’t take long for Lou to realize that something’s wrong. Ruben argues that he can still play the drums by memory, even if he can no longer hear what he’s playing. Lou is more concerned that Ruben is going to slip back into his previous bad habits and once again start using heroin.
Eventually, the two of them go their separate ways. Lou returns to her family in Belgium and reinvents herself as an artist. Meanwhile, Ruben ends up at a center specifically for deaf recovering addicts. The center is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a kind but no-nonsense man who lost his hearing in Vietnam and who is a recovering alcoholic. At first, Ruben is bitter and angry and refuses to accept that his old life is over. When Joe order Ruben to spend hours sitting in a room and writing down whatever pops into his head, it takes Ruben a while to see that Joe is helping him to come to terms with living in a world without sound. Even as Ruben starts to accept his new reality, he still finds himself wanting to reunite with Lou. He finds himself tempted to get a cochlear implant, despite Joe explaining that doing so will mean that Ruben will have to leave his new home.
In the hands of a lesser director and a lesser cast, Sound of Metal could have become mawkish or overly sentimental, the type of film that tries so hard to be uplifting that it ends up condescending instead. However, director Darius Marder emphasizes the gritty details of his story, showcasing Ruben’s emotional growth while also acknowledging that Ruben will never truly be at peace with his hearing loss. This is a film that acknowledges what Ruben’s gained from his new circumstances while never ignoring the pain of losing his former life. The film’s soundtrack is designed so that we hear exactly as much or as little as Ruben can hear. We feel his frustration and his fear as sound fades away while, at the same time, we also come to appreciate everything that he finds in the silence.
The Academy has rightfully nominated Riz Ahmed for best actor for his performance in Sound of Metal. That was expected as Ahmed’s been honored by several critics groups and probably the only thing that will keep Ahmed from winning thr Oscar is the Academy’s understandable desire to honor the legacy of Chadwick Boseman. Ahmed does a wonderful job capturing all of Ruben’s emotions, from his fear to his anger to finally his reluctant acceptance.
Olivia Cooke was not nominated for her role, though I think she should have been. It’s perhaps understandable why Cooke wasn’t nominated as she’s actually off-screen for a good deal of the film but she still does a great job capturing both Lou’s love for Ruben and also portraying the way the Lou grows as both a person and an artist in his absence.
That said, the best performance in the film comes from Paul Raci. I have to admit that I cheered a little when I heard that the Academy had nominated Raci for Best Supporting Actor. The previously unknown Raci, who has been acting for years but who had never had a film role as big or as important as this one, is the son of deaf parents and he brings a tough but heartfelt authenticity to the role of Joe. As played by Raci, Joe sincerely cares about Ruben but, at the same time, he’s also not going to let Ruben get away with self-pity. Raci gives a quietly authoritative performance as Joe, rarely raising his voice but still turning the character into the film’s moral center.
Sound of Metal was one of my favorite films of 2020. It was nominated for Best Picture, along with 5 other nominations. Personally, while I know the film probably won’t beat Nomadland for the main prize, I’m still hoping that Paul Raci will be able to pull off an upset and take home the Oscar that he definitely deserves.