Criterion Review: SOUND OF METAL

Previously a streaming exclusive, Darius Marder’s acclaimed drama gets a physical 4K and Blu-ray release

The last image of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is of the film’s protagonist, Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), out on a sidewalk enveloped by the sounds of everyday hustle and bustle around him. Leaves rustle, people are going this way and that, birds are chirping. Ruben doesn’t hear it. But the look on his face is serene. He’s at peace for the first time in the film, and probably for the first time in a long time in his life. Up to this point in the movie we’ve seen Ruben fight against rapid onset hearing loss, a battle we know he can’t win. At least, it’s a battle Ruben can’t win the way he wants to. He’s a drummer in a metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). If he can’t hear, then he can’t play music, and if he can’t play music, he’ll lose the thing that keeps him tethered to his world. Or so he thinks.

Ruben goes to doctors, talks to Lou, and sets his sights on a cochlear implant to salvage his hearing. The doctors do what they can to get through to Ruben, but he’s not ready to really deal with what they’re telling him. It’s not until Ruben meets Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who runs a shelter for deaf recovering addicts, that he starts to see his way forward.

One of life’s toughest lessons to learn is that to survive, and thrive, you have to bend yourself to what the world throws at you. You can try to bend life to your will, but that’s an exercise as futile as throwing a rock at the moon. It’s one thing to adapt to a new routine, but adjusting to a new way of life? That’s something else. For Ruben, he’s armed with a sack full of rocks and film follows him as he throws everything he can to get back what he had until he’s exhausted himself. The stretch of the film with Ruben at the shelter is the highlight of the film. Ahmed’s performance is electric and raw and Ruben is bucking bronco. Joe is a steadying force, and Raci plays him with a clarity and calmness that is hard-earned.

With the age gap between the characters and actors, it’s hard to avoid thinking of their relationship in father-son terms. There’s a sense that Joe knows no matter how much help he offers Ruben, there are mistakes Ruben will have to make before he really gets where he wants to be. After Ruben gets the cochlear implant, against Joe’s advice and warning that Ruben wouldn’t be allowed to return to the shelter, Joe greets him with the look of a disappointed-but-not-surprised father. Like a rebellious kid, Ruben strikes out on his own until he’s ready to understand the lessons Joe and the others at the shelter taught him.

The first image of the film is Ruben, shirtless and sweaty, behind his drum kit. The screen is full of darkness aside from Darius and the drums. In the dank club and thundering noise, Darius appears to be at peace. But he’s really in the eye of a tornado. I’d say eye of a hurricane, but with hurricanes we have some awareness of what’s about to happen. Life is more akin to a tornado, dropping down and upending lives while inexplicably sparing others. And what is life if not weathering one storm after another? Sound of Metal isn’t about a man losing his hearing, it’s about a man finding the courage to accept what life has thrown at him and move forward. By the end of the film Ruben has stepped out of the darkness and into the light, ready to face whatever the world throws at him next.

Available to stream any time on Amazon Prime, Marder’s film gets a physical media release courtesy of Criterion. The release is light on supplements, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. There’s an insightful look at the sound design of the film and a lengthy conversation between Marder and writer-director Derek Cianfrance. The two share a history. They co-wrote Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and share a story credit on Sound of Metal. They dig into how the film evolved over the course of a decade to the finished product. As friends they have a relationship that allows the conversation to transcend the typical interviewer-subject dynamic. For my money the highlight is actually the booklet essay by Vulture’s critic Roxana Hadadi, which is lovely and empathetic analysis of the film and Ruben’s journey.

Criterion’s release of Sound of Metal is now available in 4K UHD and Blu-ray

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