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Sound of Metal

**1/2

by Matt Anderson

published November 18, 2020

Sound of Metal features a strong idea, but its storytelling sensibilities are muffled.

The Path to Stillness

Watching Sound of Metal is a frustrating experience. Part of it is by design. Part of it stems from its own failure to commit to an emotional track.

By design, Sound of Metal is intended to give viewers a sense of what it feels like to go deaf. The movie opens with a live performance from a metal duo, Black Gammon. At the drums is Ruben (Riz Ahmed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story); the screaming singer is Lou (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Ruben’s girlfriend of four years.

As the music plays on, the audio becomes more and more distorted. Don’t adjust your set. Descriptive captions reinforce the action — [music muffles], [music stops], [distorted applause], [muffled water], [muffled dripping], [muffled speaking].

It’s an effective treatment of the sensation. Furthering the disorienting nature of hearing loss, Ruben is thrown into a wholly new environment. A serene one, in complete contrast to the raucous rock scene. As his hearing rapidly deteriorates and puts the duo’s road tour on hold, Ruben finds himself consulting with a guy named Joe (Paul Raci, a real-life Vietnam vet and child of deaf parents) at a ranch-style location in the middle of nowhere. Joe’s modus operandi is to find a solution for the mind, not the ears. In Joe’s view, being deaf is not a handicap, not something to fix.

That’s where the movie’s own modus operandi reveals itself in full. Ruben is at that point surrounded by children and others who all communicate with American Sign Language (ASL). Some, such as Joe, also read lips.

It’s a foreign world to Ruben, one without the benefit of subtitles — and so it is for the moviegoer, as well. There are no subtitles for those early conversations in ASL, with the intent to further share Ruben’s disorienting experience. Eventually, Ruben learns ASL and the subtitles are then included for the viewer to understand Ruben’s conversations.

Gypsy Life

That’s all clever, at least to a point. As frustrating as it can be watching Sound of Metal during those early scenes, it’s effective in achieving a sensation. But after that point in the story, it’s the emotional component that goes mute and the viewer is left out in the cold.

The through line of the story — and, by extension, the lead characters — needed to be stronger. It’s been a 10-year odyssey for writer/director Darius Marber (making his narrative feature debut) in getting this movie made, which makes it all the more of a harsh realization the end result should’ve been more impactful.

The trouble is — aside from the emotional breakdown from Ruben’s hearing loss and the disruption of his tour plans and romantic life — there’s a disturbing lack of emotion running throughout the story, which in turn makes it mighty hard to find Ruben all that empathetic. There are stories of people going mad after losing their hearing; in one heartbreaking, real-world instance, a couple lost their hearing while attending a music festival. Their solution was to commit suicide.

That’s the dangerous path the story could’ve explored. Instead, it relies on other fallbacks to generate tension without evoking emotion. Ruben and Olivia are recovering heroin addicts. Olivia comes from a broken home. Ruben has no place to go. They found each other and gave each other a future.

All of that is narrative noise, a distraction from the more urgent story at hand.

Punchin’ Donuts

Here’s a key example of how Sound of Metal misses a crucial beat. It involves Ruben, a young boy and a slide.

Ruben seemingly becomes nothing more than resigned to move into the ranch and take guidance from Joe. He needs some sort of treatment and neither he nor Lou have the wherewithal to find something else. Lou moves back home so Ruben can focus exclusively on his path to some sort of recovery without fretting over her. Fine.

But, after his initial breakdown, it’s Lake Placid. There’s nothing to read on Ruben’s face. The shared experience hits a disconnect because Ruben’s reactions stop being natural.

Which brings Ruben to the slide.

During a class, one young student with a severe attention deficit becomes a distraction and Ruben volunteers to take him outside for some solitude. The two sit on a slide. The kid, at the top, starts banging on the slide. Ruben, sitting at the bottom, feels the vibration. They then start to find a rhythm between the two of them and the slide.

That’s cool. But — and maybe this is too Hollywood a notion — there’s no eureka moment here. This should’ve been when a light goes on in Ruben’s head that there is a different life to be had. There should be some sense of joy at this breakthrough. Instead, the camera holds back and captures an uptick in the tempo from a distance. A scene that could’ve — and should’ve — started the heart racing merely fades away.

Then again, in keeping that detachment, it makes it all the easier for Ruben to simply up and leave. Despite learning ASL and forming friendships of some degree, Ruben plows ahead with getting hearing implants and renewing his hope to get back on the road with Lou. His story, then, becomes a mishmash of commitments. The realization hearing implants aren’t a cure-all doesn’t register much in the way of emotions from Ruben.

In some respects, Sound of Metal is all about language. Speaking, sure. But also music, ASL, vibrations, facial expressions, body language — and foreign translations, such as French (wherein scenes once again feature no subtitles, since Ruben doesn’t speak French). And it’s also about the language of cinema.

Marber denotes the passage of time without the use of title cards or subtitles. It’s the subtlety of the season changes that show Ruben’s stay at the ranch has gone on for some time.

But, as finely crafted as Sound of Metal is on many levels, it still misses the most important component of cinema: emotional resonance.