In a time where we are all currently experiencing an overwhelming sense of loss while trying to adapt to new life circumstances, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is thus perhaps the most fitting film of 2020. A film that probably unknowingly captures this universal feeling right now, portrayed by the magnificent Riz Ahmed as Ruben.
The opening is loud, abrasive and chaotic. Ruben, a drummer in a punk-metal band, is lost completely to his performance, a substitute for his former life marred by a heroin addiction. No sooner have we met Ruben and his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), do both ourselves and Ruben learn that he has already lost 80-90% of his hearing and the rest will soon follow. A stark reminder of the fragility of life, and how quickly one’s reality can be completely shattered.
Throughout Sound of Metal, Ruben is in a constant struggle with himself, represented more in his body language and eyes than actual words – a constant tension between silence and sound underscored by the stunningly tangible sound design of Nicolas Becker, immersing the audience into Ruben’s world, at times trapping us in his auditory condition. Often coupled with large swathes of silence, during moments where we, like Ruben, can follow without the aid of verbal noises.
Lou hastily takes Ruben to a commune of sorts, a community of those without hearing that live in harmony both with each other and their circumstances. It is here we meet Joe (Paul Raci), who runs this community with its core values based on this idea that “You don’t need to fix anything here”, a reminder given to Ruben as he tries to fix the roof while adapting to this new environment. Although Ruben does find calmness and tranquil in this space, he is still lured and pulled by an obsessive need to find a quick temporary fix, to return to his normality. This materialises in the form of an incredibly expensive surgery that has no guarantee of success.
Thus, this is a film that is rooted in conflicts, accentuated not only by the sound design but also by elements of lighting and space. It is in the dark, enclosed spaces that Ruben is at war with himself, fighting to hold on to a reality that is quickly fading. It is only in the open and bright clear space that Ruben can begin to find peace.
While all components of this film create a unique harmony that perfectly illustrates one’s resistant to change and their struggle to adapt to a new reality, it is Ahmed’s standout performance of a character frustrated and lost but yet forced almost to repress some of his anger as he feels isolated and alienated.
There will no doubt be an award buzz around Ahmed’s acting, understandably so. However, fundamentally Sound of Metal is a film, whether intentionally or not, that has come at a moment when we need it most. A raw experience that captures what we have collectively been experiencing this last year as individuals, alone.