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I don’t know what it is about me that is always more interested in negative reviews than positive ones. The Oscars bring this out of me more than most things, but I’m always fascinated by the contrary opinion. We’ve spent a lot of this space over the last few weeks talking about the nominees and we have a handful to go, but today we’ll talk about another nearly universally loved film — except by a few people, who we’ll get to — Sound of Metal.
The only movie that critics hated that’s nominated this year is Hillbilly Elegy. People hated it because it feels false, which is always the risk of a politically charged biopic. This is no longer a “risk” when the subject is still alive and tweeting preemptive support of Tucker Carlson, at that point it’s just an unforced error. I don’t think it’ll win anything, the more movies up against it I see, but I call it out as an extreme example. Naturally, obviously, you would expect that any movie up for an award would be something that folks, y’know, like.
Sound of Metal is just that. It’s a movie about a subject everyone can somewhat relate to, if only as an abstract fear, and it’s a vehicle for a powerful central performance that never takes the camera away. It shares a lot of DNA with another Best Actor and Best Picture nominee, The Father, in that both films never spend significant time away from the star. It’s potentially possible to have a Best Actor film where the cast gets a chance to bloom away from the lead, like Minari, but more and more you see this category as a chance to see “most” acting as well as “best” acting, as we’ve discussed before. Typically that term is a cudgel swung at a hammy performance, but I’m just interested in how this trend has evolved. We don’t even necessarily have scenes where other characters talk about the lead, we just follow them around, nearly inside their head, for two hours.
Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer in an experimental metal two-piece with his girlfriend on guitar and vocals. From the first shot we see Ruben wide-eyed and shirtless, intensely slamming away. His most visible tattoo reads “please kill me.” It’s not subtle visual storytelling, but it doesn’t really need to be subtle. Ruben gets ready in the RV they live in and we see a breakfast montage of lunges, pushups, and healthy green juice. We’re supposed to understand that these two are in recovery, or at the very least are healthy punks that tilt towards a straightedge lifestyle. This is the opposite of a “please kill me” tattoo. Fifteen minutes in and you understand who you’re dealing with without anyone turning to camera and explaining it.
Even the best films fall into this trap. There’s a ton of it in Mank, though that’s wrapped up in jokes and early Hollywood slang, and it always comes across as insulting when a movie feels the need to explain what you can pick up visually. Sound of Metal tells us who Ruben is at a basic level right away. The problem, I think, is it stops the development there.
Ruben loses his hearing dramatically and goes to a pharmacy for a solution. He’s convinced there’s something he can do today, he just needs to figure out what it is. The pharmacist sends him to a specialist, today, and the specialist tells him he’s lost almost all of his hearing, permanently, and he’s in danger of losing the rest. This is shocking, both to Ruben and to the audience, and it’s incredibly paced. A trend in the negative reviews I read is that people wanted this to be stretched out, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s extremely powerful to see the experts tell Ruben the news, sure, but the key here is that they do tell him there’s no real solution. They see who Ruben is, as everyone in his life does, and they realize this isn’t something that needs to be sugarcoated. They have to get this man to understand the limits of solutions available to him, but they can’t break through his armor. Ruben is told, just about right away in the story, how it’s going to end. He just doesn’t listen.
I guess that could be unsatisfying for some people, but that’s only if you want this to be a story of someone overcoming a problem and finding a solution. That’s not the story of Sound of Metal, and it’s really on you if you need it to be something else. Sound of Metal tracks Ruben’s resistance to partial solutions. He’s in recovery from heroin, which means accepting that you’re an addict and admitting it. His loss of hearing mixes with this and the people in his life want him to apply the same solution. You don’t get “cured” of addiction, you manage it. That works, somewhat, for Ruben in that he isn’t using, but you get the sense that he’d like this problem to have a more concrete solution.
Ruben spends the bulk of the film at a shelter run by a man named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Raci is up for Best Supporting Actor for the performance and it’s very well deserved. Raci grew up with deaf parents and brings the experience to the character. The world of the shelter feels like it’s been there for decades when Ruben enters it, and this is no small feat. It’s all montages and speeches about learning to accept that deafness is not a disability. This is the primary beef that reviewers, even ones who liked the film, take with Sound of Metal. Ruben wants to hear, but Joe insists that until he accepts a life of silence that he can sit in, he’ll always act like an addict.
I can see both sides of this argument. Ruben doesn’t really get any time to adjust before his new support structure demands he be okay with this life change. The film asks the viewer to side with Joe, and Raci’s performance makes the argument a noble one and a realistic perspective, but it’s a tough ask of Ruben in reality. Ruben sticks with his sobriety, but he’s angry that he’s lost the one thing that he enjoyed (music) and something he hadn’t ever expected it to be possible to lose (one of his senses). Sure, Joe is selling a perspective that would help Ruben adjust, but the position that Ruben is unjustly angry just doesn’t come through.
Sound of Metal makes a strong connection between addiction and accepting your lot in life. This part definitely works and it allows Ahmed a lot of space to explode and contract and seethe. He’s relatable at times and extreme at times. It’s exactly what a Best Actor performance generally is, for better or worse, and I think he’s in the top half of the category this year if not outright the best. The script does his character few favors, with his addiction story revealed in a literal interview and his backstory through a breakfast table conversation during the falling action. Most of it is just him emoting and trying to find the next desperate step forward, which makes Sound of Metal feel like an addiction story even though it’s really a recovery one. It’s a neat trick, even if there are unexplored directions that could add some more depth.
The sound design is the real centerpiece. We often hear literally what Ruben hears, which offers distorted, quiet moments as his hearing fades out and true silence as it leaves him completely. It’s a powerful technique to put us in Ruben’s perspective and it rightfully will be what most people talk about when they talk about Sound of Metal, but I think it’s used too infrequently. It’s possible that it would be frustrating if it came up more often, but as-is there are long stretches in the way-too-long center of the film where it doesn’t come up at all. We spend nearly every second of Sound of Metal with Ruben, but we’re only in his head a few times. The ending makes up for a lot of the lost time, but it also makes you wonder what might have been. The result is powerful and interesting, but I can’t help but feel like there is more you could do here.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last 20 minutes of The Father is heartbreaking and intense. The first 20 minutes of Sound of Metal are shocking and intense. This may be unfair, but I do think Sound of Metal starts strong and gets a little less so with each act. The Father goes in the other direction, building on what you know and creeping towards where you suspect you might be going. Sound of Metal is the more interesting story, but the gimmick of The Father serves the story being told there better and is applied more consistently.
Is it the best movie of all time? I would have liked to see them go for broke with the sound design. Maybe that movie is unwatchable, but at least more of Ruben’s difficulties would have been nice to see. We don’t ever really get to know anyone, so even though Raci and Ahmed deliver excellent, award-worthy performances, it’s very hard to care the way you need to for the movie to get into your bones. There’s also a weird effect of it both feeling a little long but also rushing the ending and Ruben’s decisions. He seems to have accepted what Joe wants to sell him in one moment and then rejected it in another. This is all part of the addiction cycle, but there’s just something missing that could connect everything just a little bit better and make this feel more realized. It’s worth your time because of what it tries to do, but to dethrone In the Mood for Love, it would need to stick the landing.
You can watch Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.