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With: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric, Lauren Ridloff
Written by: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance
Directed by: Darius Marder
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and brief nude images
Running Time: 121
Date: 11/20/2020
IMDB

Sound of Metal (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hear and Now

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many movies about maladies, illnesses, disablements, or other conditions that were put up for Oscar consideration made the mistake of only focusing on the problem.

However, the powerful new Sound of Metal, which is scheduled to open Friday, November 20, 2020 in select cinemas, including the Embarcadero, works because it's really about characters and politics, emotions and empathy.

Certainly it has its eye-rolling moments, as when a slightly wobbly hand-held camera solemnly contemplates the lead character, drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), who is shocked to discover that he's losing his hearing.

The movie will also debut Friday, December 4, 2020 on Amazon Prime.

As it begins, Ruben plays thundering drums for a metal band called Blackgammon. His girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) — her eyebrows bleached ghostly white — plays clamorous guitar and shrieks unintelligible lyrics.

In the morning, Ruben happily prepares a healthy breakfast for himself and Lou in their humble RV. But while setting up the merch table for that night's gig, Ruben suddenly has a drop in his hearing. The soundtrack complies, letting us know that everything is muffled. He — and we — can't hear a word anyone says.

A doctor tells him that he has lost most of his hearing, and that avoiding loud noises is the only way to hang on to what remains. He also mentions the possibility of cochlear implants, which will cost $40-80,000, and which insurance does not cover.

After unwisely struggling through the gig, Ruben winds up at a kind of camp for deaf people, run by Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his hearing in the war. The mission of the camp is to encourage deaf people to learn how to be deaf, and to be OK with it.

But Ruben dreams of getting back to music and to Lou, and won't let go of the idea of the implants. He sells everything he has and goes through with it.

When he asks Joe if he can stay for a few more weeks to recover, Joe tells him no. The people there believe that deafness is not something that needs to be fixed, and Ruben has taken steps to "fix" his. He is no longer welcome.

This is a real thing. Josh Aronson's excellent 2000 documentary Sound and Fury (available to rent on Apple TV) goes more into detail about the dividing line among the deaf community over implants, versus communicating via the beautiful American Sign Language.

Sound of Metal communicates this strongly-held belief simply and powerfully.

It also perfectly illustrates the downside of cochlear implants with its inspired sound design. Through the implants, everything sounds slightly tinny, metallic (the title offers a dual meaning).

In one unforgettable scene, Ruben attends a party at Lou's family's home. The various conversations blur into a noisy buzz and he has a hard time hearing any one thing clearly.

Then, Lou and her father (Mathieu Amalric) sing a lovely little duet at the piano. We hear the song normally, and then the camera drifts through the partygoers until it lands on Ruben. The soundtrack shifts to his point of view, and the song dissolves into a hissing, crackling mess.

The heartbreak of all this is perfectly conveyed by Ahmed, who fulfills the promise of his breakthrough performance in Nightcrawler (2014).

He's at his best in the early scenes, conveying the blood-chilling existential dread of the initial realization that he is going deaf. Such a simple thing, taken for granted, so easily gone.

But the most fascinating performance is the one by Raci, as Joe. Wise, slightly grizzled, but calm and zenlike, he speaks in a no-nonsense, soft growl; his signing is almost like a dance. Aside from acting in small parts for decades, we learn via IMDb that Raci is a child of deaf parents and is in a band that performs in ASL.

Sound of Metal is directed and co-written by Darius Marder, who co-wrote Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) and received a little help from Cianfrance on this, Marder's own feature debut.

The film rarely makes a wrong move, but one troublesome flaw is that we have no idea how long Ruben is at the camp before he sees Lou again. Clearly it has been long enough for him to learn a decent amount of ASL, but has it been months? A year? Was Lou expected to wait for him?

On the other hand, Ruben regularly works with a pretty teacher, Diane (Lauren Ridloff), taking care of a class full of deaf children. Even if this situation starts to look a little obvious, it's not. The movie is about more than romantic fulfillment.

Marder gives his film a lived-in look, slightly drab, but fitting in with Ruben himself and his wardrobe of ripped t-shirts and band-logo hoodies.

Sound of Metal winds up uneasily, with no real answers, and with Ruben still facing a hard struggle ahead. But it has an unforgettable final moment that finds poetry in silence.

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