Opening Up the Oscars: Finding Stillness in ‘Sound of Metal’

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Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone in “Sound of Metal.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)

By Luke Jackson, Arts Writer

 

In Rochester, New York, there is a community comprised of around 90,000 deaf or hard of hearing individuals. Communities like this are spread throughout the continental United States, but Rochester has the nation’s largest deaf population per capita. In these communities, being deaf is not viewed as something to be cured, but a culture to be embraced. There are even individuals in these communities who look down upon those who opt to undergo surgery. A cochlear implant is viewed not as a miracle device, but as a divisive technology that destroys deaf culture. The passion regarding this issue has gone as far as implanted individuals being shunned by the deaf community.

“Sound of Metal,” alludes to the notion of embracing circumstance, particularly that of hearing loss, and taking the time to find moments of stillness in our trials instead of being transfixed on fixing them.

A Story of Sound

The film follows heavy-metal drummer and recovering drug addict Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) and his personal journey with hearing loss. Reluctantly, and with strong persuasion from his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben joins a small deaf community lead by Joe (Paul Raci). Here, Ruben quickly integrates into deaf culture, but with the hope of someday returning to his former life.

Ahmed gives an absolute powerhouse of a performance — no doubt the best of his career. Incredibly subtle and relatable in his pain and frustration, Ahmed brings a depth to Ruben which immediately won my heart over. I was brought to tears in his low moments, and filled to the brim with joy when he succeeded. Aided by a stunning performance by Raci, the film walks a realist line of docudrama that is very uncommon in mainstream cinema today. Writer and director Darius Marder is wonderful at the helm of his second directorial endeavor. With his first film being a documentary, it is obvious he is adept at capturing real human moments. The writing is reserved and the shots are close and personal. Marder does not show us a story but invites us to partake.

Sound Design and Award Season

While the performances are notable, the real hero of “Sound of Metal” is the sound design. Capturing the feeling of losing one’s hearing is no easy task. The sound team rose to the challenge and allowed the audience to experience the stress, anxiety and alienation that comes from hearing loss.

First comes a high-pitched ringing which slowly grows until it encompasses all around us — then muffled noises, as if we are underwater. There are no subtitles given to assist us either — we are completely and totally left to wonder what is being said. The film gracefully switches between this muffled audio and the crisp sounds we are used to hearing. It beautifully emphasizes Ruben’s loneliness and desire to return to his past life but also his learning of sign language and adaptation to new circumstances. Subtitles appear as characters sign to each other; silence becomes atmospheric and welcomed. Stillness is not only embraced, but with Ruben, we learn that if we are still, even for just a moment, we can find peace.

“Sound of Metal” is a striking and unique character study which is fresh and timely. There’s no better time than now to be reminded that we cannot control circumstance; we can only control our personal reactions. While it may not be my pick for this year’s Best Picture, it deservedly stands among its fellow nominees. Awards in mind, I am hopeful that Ahmed will take home the award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, but I am confident that it will receive the Oscar for Best Sound.

“Sound of Metal” is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

 

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