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The Daily Tar Heel

Oscars Spotlight: “Sound of Metal” is a touching, technically tantalizing tale

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in SOUND OF METAL. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Though film is a predominantly visual medium, it would be a tremendous mistake to underestimate the importance of the sound behind it. 

“Sound of Metal” is one of few movies that not only makes you keenly aware of this point, but emphasizes it, intentionally drawing our attention to the different ways sound can impact our perception of the world around us. 

Its protagonist, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), finds himself surrounded by noise. In fact, as the drummer in a heavy metal duo he started with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), he thrives off it.

From the very beginning, the movie dazzles viewers with loud, passionate drum solos. Fast-paced shots from quickly shifting camera angles somehow increase the already sky-high energy of Ruben’s drumming, but seamless editing makes it seem natural and engrossing. You can feel Ruben’s heart, and yours, racing as Ahmed pours every ounce of himself into his performance — sweating, grimacing and panting as though he could give out at any moment. 

Yet, the joy he derives from making music comes at a great price — his hearing. 

Suddenly, our ears become Ruben’s. The banging of the drums is muffled; Lou’s piercing vocals, silenced. And the sensation continues after the concert, as the sounds of Ruben’s surroundings are diluted as they reach both his ears and ours. 

After seeing a doctor and conducting a hearing test, Ruben finds out he can only make out 20-30 percent of the words he hears. He opts to get cochlear implants to help his hearing, but he doesn’t have enough money to pay for them, since they’re not covered by his insurance plan.  

Ruben’s life is further complicated by a drug addiction, from which he was recovering. Lou, worried he would relapse, sends Ruben to a rural shelter for deaf recovering addicts on the recommendation of a friend of his. 

Though initially reluctant, especially since Lou is not allowed to stay because she isn’t deaf, Ruben eventually agrees to stay at the shelter. There he meets Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran and former alcoholic who takes Ruben under his wing. He introduces him to a teacher at a local school so he can learn American Sign Language and helps him cope with being deaf.

“Sound of Metal” does a remarkable job at following Ruben through his journey, not only through its masterful sound design but the brilliant screenplay and the performances it enables its cast to give. 

The middle of the film is bereft with long silences, inviting the viewer to contemplate what they would do and how they would feel if they were in Ruben’s position, while also giving room for the emotion the characters convey through non-verbal means.

The dialogue is raw, natural and full of emotion. Instead of worrying about adding frills and needlessly fanciful vocabulary, the writing gets straight to the point — loud, but poignant exclamations communicate the distress of Ruben and Lou, while calmer, more reassuring language during Ruben’s recovery eases him towards accepting his new reality. 

The portrayal of the relationship between Ruben and Joe also benefits from the outstanding, Oscar-nominated acting of Ahmed and Raci. The former's boisterous, intense passion is tamed by the latter's sage, understated wisdom, with the chemistry between them driving the plot forward effortlessly. 

Ahmed would have had a great chance to take home the Oscar were it not for the incredible performance of Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which will almost certainly net him a win for Best Actor. Raci’s supporting actor bid is also unlikely to win out, especially when up against Daniel Kaluuya’s powerhouse role as Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Still, “Sound of Metal” has a great chance to take home accolades in technical categories like Best Film Editing and Best Sound – with its victory in the latter category being a foregone conclusion. 

Its ability to capture the imaginations and heighten the emotions of viewers through the technical aspects of the film make it a uniquely entertaining picture — easily one of the year’s best. (9.5/10)

“Sound of Metal” is currently streaming on Prime Video, and is nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Original Screenplay.


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