Sound of Metal (Review)

As a piece of technical filmmaking, Sound of Metal is quite astonishing. It is defined by superlative sound design, subtly brilliant visuals and precise performances. It also adheres clearly to effective dramatic formulas, carving out a narrative that hits established emotional beats with a touch of arthouse flair round the edges.

All of this is incredibly impressive, and worthy of praise, however the whole work doesn’t quite pull these singularly excellent parts together. Sound of Metal is a conflicting, and perhaps confused, film. The most apparent issue with Sound of Metal – outside of its subtext – is the film’s structure. The film chronicles the journey of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a two-piece metal band who starts to rapidly lose his hearing.

The film takes on the conventional narrative arc of a person learning to live with an impairment, maybe learning about themselves and maybe learning to think differently about whether certain things truly are impairments. Despite some flashy aesthetics, and an arty, meandering pace that touches on meditative, the overall piece is quite conventional. It sets up the kind of characters and conflicts you would expect and somewhat ticks them off. It is emotive if unsurprising.

The later slowness is nice, and lets the film percolate effectively. But, the opening is alarmingly brief. The major events of the film, in general, are few and far between but all somehow hit very suddenly, abruptly even. Again, it feels like the arty film about stillness suddenly remembers it has to adhere to a strict formula so a clear conflict has to occur. This feels the most egregious at the start, where Ruben’s struggles immediately start and the linearity pushes the audience with no room for reflection.

One of the core ideas of Sound of Metal is that so called hearing loss is not a loss, it is just different. This is a really important central thrust and that makes the rushed opening make sense. However, the overall arc of acceptance would work better if there was more of a feeling of loss to overcome. The opening is tragic, and effective, but for narrative reasons rather than through cinematic expression.

At every other point though, filmic language does uplift the film. The sound design is perfect, carrying the film and making it experiential. We swap between subjective and objective viewpoints, enforced by the sound. The sound ties us to Ruben’s perspective, then we jump out of it to juxtapose it – the sound design always being diegetic but in cleverly different ways. This is also partnered with open captions that communicate sound to the audience in a different way, which perfectly matches the accepting and progressive stances the film is taking.

The visual language is also impressive, and has been often overlooked. The colour grading is notably muted, but just slightly. Everything is just a bit too dim and toned down in a way that mirrors the auditory language. It also foregrounds the sound beautifully by toning down the visuals, which is incredibly smart.

The last piece of the brilliant puzzle is, of course, Ahmed. His performance gives more character and personality than the script does, which is ultimately very tropey. In description, and on the page, the character feels quite thin but Ahmed’s precise performance imbues Ruben not only with humanity but with subtleties. It is also an empathetic performance, and an informed one. Members of the deaf community are very much included in the film, and in its creation – as well as the wider community around hearing loss or impairment.

Riz Ahmed is a hearing actor though. And while he is very good, his casting causes discomfort – as his goodness is rooted in him replicating a condition he does not have. It falls into the sphere of impairment or disability as an acting showpiece, though is less egregious than most, which is always uncomfortable for me. Also, his rapid decline at the start means there is very little of Ruben as a person with full hearing – a longer transition may have necessitated a hearing actor. The structure rushes towards Ruben as being somebody dealing with hearing loss and then does not cast somebody dealing with hearing loss.

A wider issue is also how the film presents the options for those who lose their hearing. The film clearly has an opinion that loss is not an absence but something to be accepted. This is very commendable and the rehab sequences are superbly done. However, the final act somewhat ruined the film for me as it subtextually demonises one of the ways people deal with hearing loss. Acceptance is important but looks different to different people. Sound of Metal misrepresents a type of treatment, needlessly, and leaves a sour taste that seems to shame a lot of people. The third act was just not necessary, or could have been fixed by making it clear Ruben’s story is one of many. It sticks too narrowly to Ruben’s story that it becomes symbolic and universal, and therefore troubling.

Ultimately, Sound of Metal is a very impressive film with smart filmmaking at every moment. It is also clearly well intentioned but its meandering and overly conventional plot doesn’t unlock character and makes for uncomfortable implications. A lot of people will see themselves in this film and that is hugely important, and the casting is mostly excellent. But this comes at the cost of sacrificing others and tacitly demonising them, or – at best – misrepresenting them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s