Sound of Metal
(SPOILERS) Trial, tribulation and trauma movies are the awards season’s bread-and-butter. Triumphs over adversity – or occasionally not, if you’re Hillary Swank – are a guarantee to attract attention and even honours. They rely on empathy, often cheaply obtained, and offer an actor the chance to show just how versatile they can be, while the audience may, if they’re lucky – or not, if Hillary Swank is starring – be put through the emotional mill, only to emerge with a comfortingly cathartic residue. In truth, this is much of a muchness, whether you’re pulling your manoeuvres on the crassly commercial end of the spectrum (The Theory of Everything) or the “uncompromisingly” indie. One will garner the plaudits for authenticity, but the distinctions involved are frequently little more than gradations on the scale from swaddling-wrapped to faux-rawness. In some respects, the latter can be the more aggravating experience, however, prone as it can be to dishing up a highly conventional narrative in new, but stone-washed, wineskins. Step forward, cymbals clashing, Sound of Metal.
I was put in mind of Best Actress Oscar contender Pieces of a Woman more than once during the movie. Both feature a protagonist undergoing traumatic events that lead to separation from their other half in tandem with general difficulties in relating as they are reduced to an interior, closed off or enraged state. Both pictures’ protagonists are also confronted by an elder who calls them to account regarding their path, and both finally see said protagonists reach a place of acceptance from which healing can take place. Both also offer a powerful “gimmick” to attract the attention of possibly jaded critics, used to such barefaced showcases. For Pieces of a Woman, it’s the thirty-minute birth scene. Here, it’s the innovative sound design, albeit simultaneously highly predictable (anyone betting subtitles will being to appear when RIz Ahmed’s Ruben learns to sign will be quids in) and inconsistent (while we encounter Ruben’s subjective loss of hearing, director Darius Marder elects not to maintain this choice throughout, presumably on the grounds that it would be too big an ask of the audience).
Marder hatched the story with Derek Cianfrance (the screenplay is credited to Darius and brother Abraham). They previously collaborated on The Place Beyond the Pines, and the languorous, in-search-of-an-editor quality of Cianfrance’s work is also present and correct here. The irony of the presentation and premise – metal-head drummer must adjust to a life-changing episode – is that Sound of Metal’s storytelling is actually deeply conservative. And often lacking in focus (hence the languorous-ness). There’s a prevailing sense of familiarity in Ruben’s personal journey and an absence of freshness beyond the acoustic trappings.
The early section, as Ruben’s hearing loss comes on very suddenly and he elects to ignore the warnings of both body and doctor, has the self-destructive demeanour of Leaving Las Vegas. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprised that, Clean and Sober style, Ruben is revealed as a recovering addict, checking in at a shelter attending to deaf addicts. Unfortunately, this addiction element frequently feels like an obscuring choice, blurring the lines between Ruben’s two conditions.
In some respects, that could be argued as an interesting thematic decision, since the picture appears to advocate the Christian-focussed values of the shelter. Ruben’s life path is implicitly identified as destructive, with its aggressively aural assault and grimdark tattoos, obsessive exercise and dietary regimen and refractively debilitating effects on girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), who has been nervously scratching herself from anxiety (and has a history of self-harming). The Christian community, headed by benevolent, firm-but-fair Joe (Paul Raci) represents the opposite to Ruben’s realm. Even the contrasts in setting scream this: the noisy urban jungle vs the silence of nature. When Joe tells Ruben he seems like an addict and requests that he leave, after the latter returns from surreptitiously receiving cochlear implants and asks for a loan, his (reasonable) reasoning is that Ruben’s choice reinforces the idea of deafness as a handicap. There’s never any doubt that Ruben is making the wrong choice. And it’s difficult not to see him wearing his hearing apparatus and avoid thinking of cybernetic, transhumanist advancements designed to stunt our spiritual awareness (aside from which, it says little for his intelligence or the doctors’ diligence in detailing the procedure that he appears to expect a miracle cure).
I suspect Marder’s lesson is really one of paying attention to the turning points in one’s life, so as to minimise the stresses of clinging on to those things that no longer serves us. But it wouldn’t take very much – remove a lot of the language and add a more affirmative ending – to turn Sound of Metal into a faith-based movie. Ruben appears relatively content at the shelter until he sees a video of Lou working on music in Paris. He attempts to restore the previous situation, getting the implants and going to join her, but the implants prove distractingly erratic at best, and their reunion quickly gives way to realisation – in one of the movie’s best scenes, since it is played through recognition rather than overt communication – that they are no longer meant to be. His city surroundings assume a much-needed peace when Ruben finally switches off his implants in the last scene, so affirming the stillness Joe earlier invoked.
Every beat here is readily recognisable, but the shelter section is probably the most traditional in nature. Ruben passes from isolation to the status of a valued member of the community. Yet there are also odd plot tics here that lead nowhere or are ineffectively spun. He repeatedly disobeys protocols, such as using the Internet, suggesting there will be repercussions that never come; this is still continuing after presumably months there, since he has developed his signing skills and been asked to stay on as a teacher. Joe has also instructed him that part of his day will be spent sitting in his room alone, but aside from a donut-crushing first morning, we hardly see anything of his primary activity. Now, it may be the point that Ruben is failing to achieve the stillness Joe expects of him, but through more-or-less dropping this, Marder suggests he finds Joe’s (likely) insufferable boredom boring, or that he has found no way to integrate this element effectively.
Raci is the movie’s standout performance and is rightly receiving awards attention, even if he doesn’t stand a chance of winning. Both steely and gentle, his Nam veteran, recovering alcoholic might have seemed the stuff of clichés. Instead, he essays Joe with such sensitivity – the aftermath of telling Ruben he must leave, showing that being so firm has torn him apart inside – that he seems utterly authentic. Ahmed is clearly very dedicated and has mastered numerous areas for the part – signing, drumming, dietary – but he’s encumbered by the limitations of such own-worst-enemy types. While he’s very good – and certainly much more impressive than Oldman or Boseman, of the Best Actor nominees I’ve seen so far – I’m conscious that I’ve been more struck by him in other, less grandstanding roles. Cooke is contrastingly that much more affecting because she is required to be so suppressed and subdued. The scenes where Lou must ride the wave of Ruben’s frustration and anger, and then where she shows the wisdom to leave him with no option but to return to the shelter, are quite powerful. Also of note are Lauren Ridloff as a signing teacher and Mathieu Amalric, required to navigate his way through an exposition-heavy scene as Lou’s father.
With its disability-theme and very visible performances, it’s no surprise Sound of Metal has been winning the plaudits it has. I found its assumption of self-importance slightly disagreeable, however: as if its “weightiness” was a free pass to indulge itself in the telling, rather than getting to the damn point. Essentially, the raves aren’t wrong to highlight Ahmed, Raci (although Cooke deserves equal praise) and the “innovative” sound design, but behind that façade, Marder’s film is rather ordinary and routine.