It is usually the aim of a filmmaker to make a film that emotionally connects to their audience on some level. Naturally, not all movies achieve this; a fair few fall short, in fact. However, some really take you by surprise. I first read about this film in a popular magazine last year, and I thought it sounded interesting. A basic, but solid premise, with a great leading actor in Riz Ahmed, I thought it had the potential to be interesting, but I didn’t think it would be much more than that. I was surprised to see it featured so heavily in the Oscar nominations, as it didn’t seem like a typical ‘Academy’ film (that’s what happens when you judge a book by its cover, kids). But given the past year we’ve had, it shouldn’t have been too much of a shock.
The reason this film so profoundly affected me is purely circumstantial and personal. Still, at least it shows the movie was doing its job. I connected with the main character and his struggles because they were difficulties I could recognise. To let you know precisely why, I should tell you the story of my last few weeks, and why this film touched me so much.
I have worn glasses since I was a young man. Ever since my teenage years, these glasses have been getting progressively stronger as my eyesight grows weaker (that’s sort of how glasses work). In the last few years, my vision has really taken a turn for the worst. A few years ago, I found out I had astigmatism. This condition causes your eyes to be oval-shaped rather than round, which I should have known for years, apparently but didn’t. Then, just a few weeks ago, my opticians informed me that my eyesight was still getting worse. Not only that but my field of vision is restricted, and my optic discs are tilted. What this means in the long run, I don’t know yet. I am still awaiting more scans, but suffice to say, my eyesight is severely diminished. I may yet be able to get some better glasses to improve my vision, but I have been told there is a good chance I might lose my driving licence because of my vision, and who knows? Maybe it’ll get worse.
I’m saying all of this now because I am aware that I have been quiet on this site over the past few weeks. It’s because I’ve been dealing with these issues. I can still see movies well enough to review them, so that isn’t so much of a worry. Writing these is a bit of a challenge because of the small text, but I’m still finding my way around it, and hopefully, I might improve soon. The other reason is that it is actually relevant to the context of this film, Sound of Metal. It deals with the fallout from losing one of your senses – in his case, it’s his hearing rather than his vision – and how it can affect your life and work.
I started to see parallels early on between his story and my own. Ruben (Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. His ears are integral to his life’s passion. At first, he starts to hide this problem from his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) and carries on but compromises his hearing even more. I sympathised with this plight so much on a personal level. When these things happen, you just wish for them to go away, for them to be problems that sort themselves out. I was preparing to start learning to drive buses when I found out my field of vision was restricted, so that’s had to be put to one side. Not only that but I’m a movie critic, I need to see to watch films. Films are my biggest passion; music is Ruben’s. This is why I connected with this film immediately, the shared experience.
It’s not as if you need to have these experiences to sympathise with his plight either. I’d like to think the thought of going deaf or blind would scare most people. I know that I’m scared right now, and I recognise that struggle in Ruben too. He’s angry, of course; he’s just lost his hearing. Not only that, but it directly affects what he loves. He can’t drum anymore because he can’t hear. We can all relate to that, we can all appreciate that fear of having what we love stripped from us, and this film is a heart-breaking portrayal of that very thing.
It achieves this through a wonderful mix of great acting and directing, but most importantly, incredible sound design. Sound design is one of those things that you don’t notice (or care about) unless it’s really good or really bad. That’s a shame in many ways because many people work incredibly hard on every part of a film, but it’s true. But when you use something like that to tell the story, the effects can be magical.
How this film uses its sound is a stroke of genius; at pivotal parts of the movie, the sound switches to how Ruben hears the world. It fades out and becomes distant, buzzing as his hearing fades, and then just becomes silent later on. It helps create a sense of isolation around Ruben as we share the experience of what it’s like to not hear the world around you. When the perspective changes and the sound return, it’s jarring to us and really does a great job of juxtaposing the world Ruben is now a part of and the hearing world.
It’s not only a tale of lost passions and senses, however. It’s also a story of acceptance, of adapting to new challenges. Ruben is taken in by a deaf community to adapt to life. The film switches from tragic to life-affirming, as he learns how to live life without hearing. We also get a great sense of community in these scenes and some fantastic character building. It also has an incredibly poignant final act, in which he learns that sometimes the thing you want doesn’t always work out how you planned and that sometimes you don’t realise what you need when you’re focused on what you want. It may sound corny and cliched, but the film finds a way to make it work.
In conclusion, Sound of Metal makes the most of its basic plot by making it an intriguing and highly emotional study of a man whose world is turned upside down by circumstances he couldn’t foresee. This remarkably familiar set-up is made fresh again by the approach of its filmmaker and his team. Putting together a whole new perspective on the world by playing with the audience’s senses through ingenious sound design, capped off by the story’s very personal feel, captivating performances, and brilliant writing. Sound of Metal is an experience that’s sure to move you.