Released: 4th December 2020
Seen: 28th March 2021
So it’s finally getting towards the most average time of a film critics year, the month before Oscars come out when we have to play catch up on movies that we missed so that we can take part in the cinematic discourse of which films are the best films of this weird, weird year.
Somehow, despite a year of almost no movies coming out and me trying my hardest to see all of them anyway, I’ve managed to miss about 20 nominated films (“somehow” is code for “4 of them haven’t been released down under yet, 2 of them only just got released last week and the rest are Netflix films that slipped through the cracks”). So, over the coming weeks, we’re going to rectify that as much as possible.
As a warning, I am excluding the foreign films because I can’t get hold of any of them (the way films are released isn’t stupid and outdated in the slightest!) and the documentaries will be put off till the last minute (since, at the moment, I can only get hold of 3 in that category).
Some films might end up being missed because they aren’t being shown locally to me and we’re still in a pandemic so I’m not going to go to Sydney just to watch Another Round or Judas and the Black Messiah (Two years in a row something has blocked me from Sydney… I think I preferred it when the blockage was fire). Until then, let’s begin by talking about Sound of Metal which is nominated for 6 Oscars.
Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), the drug-addicted drummer of the heavy metal duo known as Blackgammon. Years of playing loud heavy metal music have done substantial damage to Ruben’s hearing. So much damage that, as Ruben learns upon completion of a hearing test, he has roughly 30% of his hearing left and that’s going to go down substantially.
There is a surgery that could help, a cochlear implant that would restore much of his hearing but because the American medical system is awful, it’s out of his price range and not covered by insurance. So, with the help of his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben finds a shelter for deaf recovering addicts and is placed under the care of Joe (Paul Raci) who will try and help Ruben learn to live with his deafness, even though Ruben keeps making things harder for himself.
There are films that you can watch distracted and films that demand your full attention and Sound of Metal is the latter, especially if you want to enjoy the rich fullness of the effort that went into this story. Everything from the performances to the sound design to how the subtitles are set up is all aimed at putting you in the head of Ruben and making you completely empathise with him, which Sound of Metal pulls off with incredible ease.
Part of why it’s so easy is the perfect performance by Riz Ahmed who has always been good, but this is him at his best. Every little nuance, the looks and reactions are perfect and you can see the wall his character had put up being slowly torn down. Scenes where Ruben just loses his temper and can’t handle the sudden change his life has taken are heartbreaking, all through the way that Riz has put everything into this. It’s the kind of performance that just commands attention.
The attention is also commanded because you will want to catch the little details of things like the sound mix which repeated puts us right in the POV of our lead character, complete with feedback, distortion and terrifying silence that overwhelms the audience. Things like the final musical sequence are heartbreaking when you hear how it sounds to Ruben, you feel his strange sense of isolation when he can barely even hear what his doctor’s saying. It’s a powerful storytelling device that I haven’t seen used in this manner since A Quiet Place.
You can tell that the people making Sound of Metal put so much effort into getting it just right, from the hiring of deaf people as most of the cast which makes the ASL feel natural and casual. Even with no one telling you what sign language means it’s so easy to follow along. There’s a brilliant detail where the subtitles won’t even tell you what the ASL means until Ruben learns it, another way of putting you in the head of this fascinating character.
Sound of Metal goes for broke in telling a story about accepting the cards you’re dealt with and working with them to be the best you can be, and this film was dealt with some spectacular cards. With a perfect cast, genius sound design and enough heartbreaking moments to keep the audience’s full attention, Sound of Metal is something truly special that will hopefully be talked about for a long time to come.