Sound of Metal (2020)

“The hearing that you have lost is not coming back.”

Guitar static lingers and anticipation awaits in the opening sequence of Sound of Metal, quite possibly the best and most important picture of 2020. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) sits at his kit, the loud reverb pulsing and the anticipation building. He’s like a chained dog anxious to run wild, ready to pounce on his drums and release his energy on the track, and it’s so clear that this volcanic expression is a violent coping mechanism and a means of temporary liberation for a man who’s incapable of inner peace. This is a blood and sweat and tears moment, as well as a harbinger of the greatness and eventual stillness to come later on, making Sound of Metal one of the most tastefully told and unique addiction odysseys I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterful debut and absolute work of art. It left me both stunned and reflective.

Most nights find Ruben getting lost in the noise of his own heavy metal, and its there with speakers blaring and his love Lou (a stunning Olivia Cooke, one of the best actresses of her generation) screaming her lyrics that he seems to find temporary solace while performing small gigs for passionate crowds. He hits the snares with aggression, slams the bass drum pedal with a lead foot, assaults the symbols and – ironically – wrecks havoc on his eardrums by way of the expressive outlet he comes to define himself through. Ruben is the kind of man who no longer chooses to destroy himself through drugs and booze, making music his new and legal vice, but “once an addict always an addict,” and his self-actualization is halted and hindered by his reluctance to fully embrace the lifelong pursuit of recovery. Denial is the first and hardest step to overcome.

Sound of Metal sells the story quickly so that we can buy into its believability that much faster, and it’s able to dive deeper because it’s so willing to stay lost in the deep end for so long. That’s where the real drama happens. Ruben’s hearing evaporates practically overnight, Lou understands she must let her love go in order to heal, and the film essentially starts a new chapter and journal entry as the two main characters embark on separate paths. Ruben is deeply co-dependent, to the point he’s willing to be a shell of his former self for the sake of maintaining their way of life, to be a mostly deaf click track she performs to instead of with. She must go her own way and he on his. Time heals most wounds and distance makes the heart grow fonder. Or so they say.

The rocky road to recovery is one undoubtedly full of selfishness. Self-pity, self-doubt, self-rehabilitation. And that’s what I so loved about writer/director Darius Marder’s debut picture. This movie understands addiction, the behaviors of those afflicted, and it paints them as people instead of as projects beyond repair. We see this through Joe (a deserving Oscar nominee Paul Raci), the group leader for a small community of deaf and recovering adults. For Ruben it’s an immersive learning program, like a religious believer hearing the rituals of mass in a different language and setting, and Raci teams with Riz Ahmed to deliver some of the best partner scenes of 2020; they’re so very communicative and weighty. Ruben wants to find the quick fix though, to slap duct tape on the open wound. Joe, pointing to his head, suggests reconciliation with the conscience is the real solution. That’s where the problems manifest and it’s where they are workshopped and personally polished. Sound of Metal illustrates the musicality of existence even when it chooses silence over frenzy, and that’s why the moments resonate so deeply. That’s why it’s such a relentlessly human endeavor. That’s why we hear it loud and clear.

No two images have stuck with me more from a single film in 2020 than the brilliant bookends in Sound of Metal. Yes, there are three truly Oscar worthy performances. And yeah, the sound design is as detailed as you might’ve read, literally putting us in an empathetic state because it allows us to hear the way Ruben does. The direction is sublime and the script spectacular. But it’s the juxtaposition and the transformation from the then to the now that hits harder than Ruben could ever bang his drum. It’s a broken man sitting at his kit, the music’s distortion a devilish delight to his ears; this is where he thinks peace resides. And because Sound of Metal is a literal depiction of grief’s five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), the story flows through those rough waters in the seas of being, transcending from a flagellating artform to an awakening place of stillness. He may not be able to hear but he can finally breathe. He can finally be. Peace at last.

“You don’t need to fix anything here.”

Rating: 5 out of 5

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