Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal ★★★★½

Derek Cianfrance's filmography remains comparatively brief, with only three feature films and a six-episode miniseries over the span of ten years (there's a very early student film and a medium-length documentary I'm not counting because literally nobody has seen them), and a part of that may be due to a project he was hard at work at that, for a moment, went nowhere. Before Blue Valentine's release, a hybrid documentary by the name of Metalhead was in development, with the sludge metal band Jucifer attached to portray themselves amidst a loose narrative of a drummer whose eardrums get completely ruptured. Various creative and financial reasons led the film to be scraped in a half-finished state, yet Darius Marder, co-writer for Cianfrance's film The Place Beyond the Pines, saw potential in the project and took the core concept into a decidedly fictional narrative direction, taking influence from his paternal grandmother's own sudden deafness. Thus, Sound of Metal was forged and launched instant buzz ever since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival for its profoundly reflective subject matter, as well as its original and universally relevant take on such a film.

Ruben, drummer for a noise metal band, notices his hearing is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and seeks out a way to restore his condition, even if other, and perhaps better, options are available to him. Hesitance to adapt and change becomes the main conflict, as his impulsive decisions to try and return to his nomadic life with his lover becomes a crutch, immediate desire to return to the way things were blinding him and becoming as much as an addiction as the heroin he beat 4 years prior. The tools to adapt to this permanent new life are given to him, and while Ruben is willing to give an inch every now and then, he continues to push himself towards an impossible goal, oblivious of the people he's hurting through the choices he wants to make and circling around the path to inner peace by avoiding full responsibility. Ruben's recovery requires not only mending with this new disability and learning with it, but also recovering his soul to accept the healing process others give him, and the film chooses not to present it as anything easy, but as a bitter pill that makes Ruben's moments of not following healing guidance all the more crushing.

With the struggle to learn how to live as a deaf person at the forefront, the utilization of sound, as well as the filmmaking techniques needed to help us understand Ruben's internal dilemma, maintains a very creative and crucial role to the film. Wisely, the film opens with intense, in-your-face metal music, setting down an intense contrast once Ruben starts to hear only muffled ambiance, a stylistic choice that's never abused and always offers great insight whenever we cut from moments with Ruben's difficulty in hearing to the often-loud sounds of civilization. Pushing the envelope in terms of letting us know what it's like to quickly lose one's hearing, it successfully guides us through the frustration and fear that Ruben has, as well as brief moments of peace that briefly occur (especially in Ruben's mandated task of writing endlessly and sitting comfortably as a method to embrace silence), to becoming a truly artful way of entering the headspace of a man prone to self-destruction finding it painful to rebuild himself up.

It's a transcendental experience watching Sound of Metal up until its absolutely perfect final shot, as it becomes a devastating wildfire that takes a raw journey into a sobering triumph, remaining content with avoiding any notions that those with a disability like deafness are broken as a result, but rather have the ability to cleanse their soul and evolve, even if evolving means risking a few wrong decisions. Riz Ahmed is naturally phenomenal in the lead role, tormented and kinetic that lends plenty of credence to the gut-wrenching emotions Ruben experiences, becoming spectacular and eerily real through his acting. It's a grounded, mature, and intimate story that never really takes the most obvious of directions, and instead becomes compelling in its refusal to romanticize being deaf while passionately going in unexpected territory the further it goes along. Although I still have four other Best Picture nominees to go, this very well may be my first pick for its alluring, atmospheric touches, in ways surely unforgettable for years to come.

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