Oscars 2021 Review: Sound of Metal

A triumph in acting and sound design, with the former featuring Riz Ahmed’s career-best performance as Ruben Stone. He plays a drummer for an indie heavy-metal duo called Blackgammon with his singer-girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Living in an RV and constantly on the road to perform various gigs across the US, everything seems fine all along.

Until one day, Ruben suddenly experiencing a problem with his hearing. After visiting a doctor to run some hearing tests, he’s being told that his hearing is deteriorating fast and needs to avoid exposing himself to loud noise. The only solution to possibly regain his hearing is getting surgery via cochlear implants, which cost at least $40,000.

However, he ignores the medical advice and continues playing gigs as usual. Knowing that Ruben’s condition will only get worse, Lou decides to stop touring altogether. With the help of their sponsor Hector, Ruben reluctantly agrees to stay in a backwoods retreat and take part in a deaf-community programme managed by Joe (Paul Raci).

Directed by Darius Marder, who previously helmed the 2008 documentary film Loot and served as a co-writer for Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), his matter-of-fact direction is on point. All without giving in to the typical melodramatic route that a lesser director would choose to depict Sound of Metal as such.

Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed in Darius Marder's "Sound of Metal" (2020)

Also responsible for co-writing the screenplay with his brother Abraham, the story unfolds naturally as we witness Ruben’s long and painful journey, where he forces to put his musical career on hold after suffering from a severe hearing loss and learn how to deal with the cruel reality of his life.

Marder even delves deeper into his character by putting us in his shoes. Or more appropriately, inside his head, as he made good use of the complex sound design with the help of sound editor Nicolas Becker to evoke a varied sense of aural experience. From the loud and deafening noise of the drumbeat to Ruben’s subsequent hearing problem that either sound muffled or distorted, the technical standpoint is undoubtedly among the highlights in this film. Marder is also smart enough to eschew the use of emotionally manipulative score typically seen in this kind of film. At one point in a key moment, he even uses complete silence to reflect Ruben’s emotional state.

Apart from Ahmed’s tour de force performance, Marder also brings out the best in the rest of his cast, with Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci both deliver strong supports. The latter happens to be a real-life hearing son of deaf parents and fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) as well. In fact, Marder went as far as actually casting some of the actual people from the deaf community, which helps to add authenticity to the film. Among them includes Chelsea Lee who plays Jenn and Jeremy Stone as the ASL teacher at Joe’s deaf community programme.

First premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival before available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video late last year, Sound of Metal tends to slog a little every now and then. But that’s a minor shortcoming, given Marder’s overall direction as well as the top-notch cast and its innovative sound achievement.

Total Oscar nominations: 6 (Best Picture, Best Actor – Riz Ahmed, Best Supporting Actor – Paul Raci, Best Original Screenplay – Darius Marder, Abraham Marder and Derek Cianfrance, Best Film Editing – Mikkel E.G. Nielsen and Best Sound – Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés Navarrete and Phillip Bladh)

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