The amount of consideration and invention that went into the sound engineering of this movie should, and I have to believe will, go down in film history. This is what it means to go right up to the edge of your medium and advance the line, transforming forever the idea of what can be done in your field.
In telling the story of a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, Sound of Metal took the approach of profound subjectivity, most immediately apparent in Nicolas Becker’s sound design, but the camera too is intimately associated with Ruben’s sensory perceptions of the space around him, and gracefully conveying to us the changes in those perceptions over time. In one of my favorite features of the cinematography, the camera position and editing subtly center characters’ signing more and more in the frame as the film goes on, a gradual shift from what initially feels more like a fluttering, disjointed movement of hands around the edges of our (and Ruben’s) perception, into what it truly is: a full and fluid language of gesture, conveying the intricacies of both mood and meaning. And god that’s remarkable filmmaking, to have taken the time and care to reflect on screen the way a character is learning to read the world differently, and to create a sense in your audience that they are sharing some portion of that increase in comprehension, all just through the framing!
I’ve wondered if there were Deaf technicians behind the scenes, in addition to all the Deaf actors onscreen. Because that part I do know: nearly all the Deaf characters were played by actors from the Deaf community, with the exception, obviously, of Riz Ahmed. But beyond how the production certainly would have gotten a bigger budget with a Name attached to the project (and that’s more hours you can spend literally inventing new microphones), I think it does make some artistic sense to cast a hearing actor in that role, as the movie is specifically about someone not previously deaf who is actively struggling to hang on to his hearing identity.
Truly though, the cast assembled here is all terrific. It was in Paul Raci’s very first scene where I suddenly remembered that there was a supporting performance in this that critics have been talking about, and knew immediately it must be him. Olivia Cooke I had not seen since my beloved Thoroughbreds, and it was such a pleasure to get another movie with her in it. And Riz Ahmed in this, is just…god, what a captivating actor. He can act entire scenes with only his giant eyes and the way he holds his shoulders. His performance is as immersive as the technical design around it, living in every thread of a character flawed and fragile and driven—what he’s doing as Ruben would be remarkable even if it were just about him going back to rehab.
Sound of Metal is a movie about care, I think, ultimately. Different ways caring for someone can look, the different forms that can take, as well the journey of learning to take care of yourself. I thought the intersection between the long road of addiction recovery that Ruben has been on four years now, with this sudden new road of learning how to be Deaf, as Joe puts it to him, was such a smart choice, because man, life often IS multiple things at once, isn’t it. And the contrast between the worn smoothness of one road with the bumpy newness of the other was just so sensitively rendered. The wholeness of this story and this film project is something I keep coming back to, it just feels so whole, but also not too neatly buttoned up. It’s human, and being alive means continuing.
This is the kind of movie where the longer I sit with it, the more enamored of it I am. I love it, in a lasting way. The final shot is going to be in my heart forever. When things in your life are lost, when they change, when you’re coping, this is a movie to draw solace from, and I feel I will my whole life.