2021 Oscar Reviews: Sound of Metal

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

Sound of Metal

[6 nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound]

First, a VERY IMPORTANT WARNING: If you, like me, knew nothing about this movie going in except that the screenshots are all of a shirtless dude totally rocking out on the drums, then you’re likely to be in for a rude awakening. If you were expecting tons of super cool drumming content a la 2014’s Whiplash, you’ll be disappointed. There is virtually no drumming in this drummer movie. Hoping for metal? Too bad; there is none. If you’re expecting this to be this year’s fun entry, you’re going to wish you’d packed your Kleenex. Somehow, this is easily the most depressing contender I’ve seen thus far. In other words…

IGNORE THE SHIRTLESS METAL DRUMMER IN THE PHOTOS!

Okay, once we get past that, it’s time for what actually IS in the movie: 2 straight hours of gut-wrenching sadness. Our protagonist Ruben (aptly played by Golden Globe nominee Riz Ahmed) is a metal drummer (nice!) who tours with his wonderful girlfriend and talented bandmate Lou (nice) in their RV/home (oh, ok… less dazzling but kinda endearing I guess) until all of a sudden Ruben loses 75% of his hearing (uh oh), realizes he can’t hear his own music of girlfriend (oh no!), can’t afford the surgery that could bring back everything he thinks he hold dear (crap!), is on the brink of ending his 4 years of sobriety (no no no no no), until his girlfriend and his sponsor manage to find him a place for deaf addicts (oh good!), where his girlfriend abandons him so he can focus (sad!) and then threatens to start self-harming herself (no!) again (gah!) if he doesn’t take care of himself (OMG I cannot handle this). From this point on we follow along with Ruben as he faces the reality of his new situation and has to figure out how to navigate the rest of his life. We thankfully do get some touching moments, like Ruben’s interactions with deaf schoolchildren, and his touching interactions with Joe, the deaf alcoholic who takes Ruben under his wing. I mean, you’ll still be weeping through these scenes, but whatever.

The film tackles plenty of topics, but at its core, it is an exploration of grief. Ruben is grieving his hearing loss, and we are right there at his side and he goes through all the familiar stages (anger, bargaining, denial, etc.) Once you recognize that this is what is happening, all that’s left to do is to patiently let Ruben and the film do what needs to done before he, it, and we can ultimately breathe when we reach acceptance. Or at least, that’s the hope we need to cling on to in order to survive this sobfest.

I am crossing my fingers that this film will be nominated for its sound. Sound of Metal’s greatest strength is the careful dance between the world as experienced by the hearing, and the world as experienced by Ruben. The audio gets muffled. Our own voice is a deep echo. We feel piano vibrations. We drum on a slide to communicate. We hear the ugly jumble of jabber at a party. We can’t hear our girlfriend sing. But as we plunge into this discombobulating new reality, our protagonist also starts to learn sign language and figure out how to still communicate. When Ruben is finally comfortable enough to start signing without talking, we suddenly get closed captions for his ASL. That last bit was a small touch, but it’s the exact kind of detail that makes this film so effective and lovely.

I honestly don’t know what kinds of nominations this film may or may not get, but I think it’s a worthy nominee. It moves slowly, and it’ll bum you out. But it’s a touching and cleverly-crafted tale, and Ahmed’s performance was definitely moving.


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