Skip to main content

But for me, the moments of stillness. That place. That’s the Kingdom of God.

Sound of Metal
(2020)

(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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

I don't think this is the lightning you're looking for.

Meet Joe Black (1998) (SPOILERS) A much-maligned Brad Pitt fest, commonly accused of being interminable, ponderous, self-important and ridiculous. All of those charges may be valid, to a greater or lesser extent, but Meet Joe Black also manages to attain a certain splendour, in spite of its more wayward impulses. While it’s suggestive of a filmmaker – Martin Brest – believing his own hype after the awards success of (the middling) Scent of a Woman , this is a case where all that sumptuous better-half styling and fantasy lifestyle does succeed in achieving a degree of resonance. An undeniably indulgent movie, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot for.

I’m afraid the Myrka takes quite a lot to impress.

Doctor Who  Warriors of the Deep There’s an oft-voiced suggestion that, if only it had the benefit of a better class of production, Warriors of the Deep would be acclaimed as a classic. I think we all know this is phooey, but at the same time, it’s undeniable that a better class of production couldn’t have harmed its reputation any. It might still have had paper-thin characters and a desperately uninventive plot (“ linear ”, as Pennant Roberts put it) along with an entirely perfunctory reintroduction of old monsters, but it could also have claimed some zip, some verve and some drama.

I always think of my murderers as my heroes.

Alfred Hitchcock Ranked: 52-27 The all-time most renowned director? It’s probably a toss-up with the Beard, although really, the latter’s nothing but a small-fry pretender who went off the boil quite early on. Hitch’s zenith may vary according to your tastes – anywhere from the mid-1930s to about 1960 makes for an entirely reasonable pick – but he offers so much choice, there’s more than likely something for everyone in there. The following, since I’m relatively youthful and/or don’t have a top-secret archive of rare and lost features, does not include his second film, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle , but everything else finds a placing. With the majority of the silent era, I was discovering them for the first time, and I’m unable to report there were any revelations during that period of his finding his feet and stylistic personality. Surprises elsewhere? I dare say there are a few, albeit more so for those I don’t rate highly than those I do. So sit back, enjoy, and maybe have a glass o