Mare of Easttown, Fearless (Taylor’s Version), and Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal

Hal: The earlier and more celebrated of two films in recent years in which Riz Ahmed plays a musician struggling with the rapid onset of a degenerative illness, Sound of Metal thankfully hardly suffers from comparison with Mogul Mowgli, which clearly felt like a more personal project for Ahmed. The loss of one of one’s senses is an almost infinitely terrifying prospect, particularly for someone like Ruben (Riz Ahmed) whose livelihood, ambitions, personal life, and whole identity are tied up with music. There have been many musicians who have gone on to great achievements in spite of the loss of their hearing, but one can hardly blame metal drummer Ruben for regarding it as a death sentence, especially given the character’s struggles with addiction and other maladies in the past. Losing his hearing is a massive disruption to Ruben, redirecting his whole life down a frightening new path.

He and his girlfriend/manager Lou (Olivia Cooke) are touring around the southern United States, playing gigs and sleeping in their RV when he suddenly starts noticing his hearing failing. Fearing a relapse, Ruben’s sponsor puts Lou in touch with a rehab facility run for the hearing impaired, presided over with a tough love attitude by Joe (Paul Raci) who tries to coax Ruben into accepting what has happened to him.

Much as Mogul Mowgli was more about Zaheer’s (Riz Ahmed) difficulties wrestling with his British-Pakistani identity than it was about his immune disease, Sound of Metal, though it has much to teach audiences about deafness, isn’t really about it either. For much of the film, it hits all the same beats as an addiction drama, Ruben is experiencing the same denial as an addict might, believing he is not deaf, he just can’t hear at the moment.

At its core, Sound of Metal is about accepting one’s own limitations, living with them and so finding inner peace, something that is extremely hard to do, even for the most able-bodied of us. We all at some point in our lives come to a realisation that one or more of our ambitions, be they careerist, social or romantic, may never be realised. Realising we will never be the person we’ve built our lives around becoming is a truly terrifying experience, and an even harder one to accept.

Sound of Metal‘s own ambition is to force an audience to confront that, or rather, to empathise with someone who is staring it in the face. Much praise has rightly been directed at the film’s sound design, it really is that good and it needed to be. So much of the film’s success lies in making you share the rising tide of panic as Ruben realises what is happening to him, the film makes you live in his head and feel his helplessness. His behaviour is rarely easy to watch or condone, but every time the sound shifts to his subjective viewpoint, we feel his agony and understand his frustration as a man who truly fears he has lost everything and cannot allow himself to believe it. Instead, he sets his sights on a cochlear implant, a drastic measure that in all practical terms he cannot afford, but which he has come to see as all he needs to put his life back on track.

Ahmed naturally gives a fantastic performance, arguably the best of his career, and the supporting cast is phenomenal as well. Olivia Cooke is both deeply human and distressingly remote as Lou, and Raci’s dependable, sincere and soft-hearted counsellor equally rises above the clichéd mentor role to feel real and organic. Joe sees cochlear bypasses as not only a short-term solution but an affront to the deaf community he is trying to build. The film doesn’t ever confront his perspective, ghettoising deaf people this way doesn’t really feel like a solution to me either, but it’s a harsh opposite to Ruben’s stubborn refusal to consider alternatives to what he thinks he needs to be happy.

The film started out as a project by Derek Cianfrance, who retains writing and producing credit on the film. I didn’t know this until I saw his name come up at the end credits, but it made a lot of sense. Visually and stylistically the film has a lot in common with his best works like The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine possessed with a similar biting rawness. It’s rare that a film this unassuming and restrained gains such traction in awards races—the fact both Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines were overlooked is testament to that—but in a year where films like Minari and Nomadland have dominated the season, this makes a lot more sense.

In fact, there’s little this reminded me more of than recent awards darling A Star is Born. Like that film, I was left from this with complicated feelings, I didn’t quite like everything it seemed to show me or agree with everything it seemed to be implying. However, I think I’m okay with that, as those were this film’s version of harsh truths, and it’s a film that consistently refuses to let the audience off the hook emotionally. I recently mentioned how those were the films most able to prove lastingly disturbing and truly unsettling to the viewer, and I think this film falls well within that category. It feels like a tragedy in the truest sense, one that like The Kindergarten Teacher, confronts the viewer with something far more distressing than any horror ever could: the fact your life will never be what you thought and that there are some things you can’t ever fix or get back.

Those are our recommendations this week! What are yours? Let us know in the comments!

Written by TV Obsessive

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