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The Screen Scene: Sound of Metal

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Fall usually means the beginning of Oscar season.  This time of year, the summer blockbusters hand the multiplexes over to the prestige dramas.  Although there were no summer blockbusters in the year of COVID-19 (unless you count the attempt to launch Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in theaters in September), the awards contenders are still emerging this fall on VOD and on subscription streaming services. 

We can endlessly debate if bypassing theatrical distribution is a good thing.  On the one hand, the films with stunning cinematography and production design that scream for big screen exhibition are stuck with televisions, tablets and laptops.  On the other hand, many awards contenders are available to film lovers at the press of a button.

This week’s film, Sound of Metal, certainly adds fuel to the fire for this ongoing argument.  It debuts on Amazon Prime on December 4th.  In any other year, WRBL’s viewership would probably head to an arthouse in Atlanta to see this film. 

On the downside, this film is a strong contender for the Oscar for Best Sound Design, and I wonder how many viewers even notice as they watch the film in their home while dishwashers are running and loads of clothes are drying in the background.

Sound of Metal is the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a White Stripes-style punk/metal duo fronted by his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke).  Ruben is losing his hearing after years of crashing cymbals and screaming guitar amps. 

The stunning sound design puts the audience inside Ruben’s head as conversations become more and more muffled.  At times, he can’t even hear himself speak.  Ruben’s ears aren’t simply ringing, they are failing entirely.

In one horrifying scene in the first act of the film, we see Ruben being examined by a hearing expert.  The doctor says a word, and Ruben repeats the word back to the doctor.  The sound mix toggles from Ruben to the doctor and back to Ruben. 

He misses word after word until the doctor informs him that his listening comprehension is around 25% of the words spoken.  Ruben cannot comprehend the world around him, and his hearing continues to decline.

Sound of Metal is not a tale of the music industry, life on the road or what it’s like to be a musician.  We see Ruben and Lou living in a beat-up R.V., riding from town to town and eking out a living by selling their own merchandise and records.  But, that is merely set-up.  Sound of Metal is about Ruben’s descent into total deafness, the disappearance of life as he knew it and his attempts to find a new path.

A considerable amount of research went into the making of this film.  The deaf community and its members are portrayed with refreshing honesty and accuracy.  Even the debate over cochlear implants and medical augmentation of hearing ability become points in the narrative.

Riz Ahmed has spent ten years as a talented actor in mostly supporting roles. In 2012, he played a young Pakistani man suspected of being a terrorist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  In 2014, he played Jake Gyllenhaal’s driver and cameraman in the dark tabloid news drama Nightcrawler, and Star Wars fans will remember him as Bodhi Rook in Rogue One.   

His stunning performance in Sound of Metal is guaranteed to raise his profile from sidekick to leading man.  His role could easily have become an Oscar bait “Man with a Disability” performance like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Sean Penn in I Am Sam.  Instead, writer-director Darius Marder and Riz Ahmed have crafted an authentic portrayal of a man who loses his hearing and finds himself entering an entire world that he never knew existed – the realities and the culture of being deaf. 

Riz Ahmed plays the anger, fear and resentment to perfection.  Does he ever reach acceptance?  I won’t tell.  The one thing that is certain:  Ahmed will capture some critics’ prizes and may put a Best Actor Oscar on his mantle. 

Sound of Metal is a stunning film-making accomplishment.  It’s one of the best films of the year.  You can catch it on Amazon Prime on December 4th.

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