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Sound of Metal doesn't shy away from complexity and is all the better for it

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune

Life was moving along quite smoothly for Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed). Four years clean from an addiction to heroin, Ruben now spends his days as a drummer touring across the country with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). The concert gigs are great but what he really loves is just shooting the breeze with Lou on their cross-country road trips. This pleasant life gets upended when Ruben wakes up one morning not being able to hear. At first wanting to just return to what he considers normalcy, Ruben is convinced to stay at a place run by Joe (Paul Raci) that serves as a home for deaf adults. Here, Ruben can learn American Sign Language and how to live with his new condition...as long as he can just be still. 

Having heard endless praise for “Sound of Metal” since its September 2019 premiere, I was prepared for this movie to be good. What I wasn't expecting was for how it's able to work on so many different levels. In particular, I was totally taken by surprise that this is as much a story about addiction as anything else. Ruben never relapses during the course of Sound of Metal but he has caught a new addiction to fixing everything. Ruben can't sit still thanks to his mind always being compelled to try and solve every problem. This inclination emerges in everything from Ruben trying to fix a faulty roof tile or the way he perceives his new loss of hearing. 

The way Ruben's addiction-impacted psyche intersects with the struggles of coping with his deafness proves fascinating to be one of the most fascinating parts of Abraham and Darius Marder's script (the latter individual also directs) for “Sound of Metal”. It's also a part of the production that ensures that this production chronicles a realistic depiction of its lead character. Ruben doesn't just go down a one-way street to personal betterment. It's a road full of zig-zags with as many steps backward as steps forwards. Authentically rendering that sort of journey makes for a difficult watch, but also one that resonates as something deeply captivating to the viewer. 

It helps, too, that “Sound of Metal” uses sound work to immerse the viewer in the world of Ruben Stone. The sound department here, which includes the likes of Maria Carolina Santana Caraballo-Gramcko and Jaime Baksht, does incredible work here to differentiate between when we're watching scenes from Ruben's perspective or not. The sparse sound work immediately indicates to us that we're being placed into the point-of-view of Ruben as he navigates eating dinner or writing in a journal in his new condition. The extra immersive nature of “Sound of Metal's” sound work is terrifically impressive and the same can be said for the performance of its leading man, Riz Ahmed.

Ahmed has been delivering impressive work in indies like “Nightcrawler” and “The Sisters Brothers” for a couple of years now. But his performance as Ruben Stone is another widely-praised part of “Sound of Metal” that I still wasn't prepared for in terms of how great it is. What really blew me away with Ahmed's work is how he can capture the pain of Stone with equally raw results whether he's playing it overt or subtle. When Ruben is trashing his RV early on in the film, Ahmed makes the characters fear and perceived helplessness palpable. Later, when he's sneaking a peek at his girlfriend through Joe's computer (Joe's compound doesn't allow people to hold on to cell phones), Ahmed doesn't have to speak a word to convey his sense of longing for Lou.

We're not supposed to agree with every decision Ruben makes in “Sound of Metal” but Ahmed's rich performance so vividly-realizes Ruben's thought process that we can always understand why he's making the choices that he does. Also standing out in the cast is Paul Raci, who lends such a compelling aura to the role of Joe. He carries himself in a way that suggests he has enough experience to last countless lifetimes. There's a wiseness to Raci's performance as Joe but also a calming presence that makes him a perfect mentor figure. Oh boy, and his final scene with Ahmed's Stone is a perfectly-executed heartbreaker of a scene. Raci is guaranteed to devastate any viewer with his beautifully understated performance here.

Actors like Ahmed and Raci inhabit a thoughtfully-rendered script that quietly lends a diverse portrait of the deaf community to Ruben's journey. Casually showing that deafness is shown to manifest in people of color and queer individuals, that alone is great. Pop culture has always had very narrow conceptions of what deafness looks like and “Sound of Metal” shatters those norms so effortlessly you won't even notice it. The fact that these characters are also allowed to function as their own human beings rather than as just props for Ruben's plotline, that's just icing on a wonderful cake.

That quality reinforces how “Sound of Metal” is such an authentic story. That level of tangible reality is absolutely perfect for the complex ballad of Ruben Stone. His life did not go the smooth route he expected, but it did, at least, result in a movie as impressive as “Sound of Metal”.