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Why Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal resonates

Great performances and fascinating technical choices power the riveting drama starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer who’s going deaf.

Ahmed, as Ruben, sits at a drum set shirtless against a black background.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Amazon Studios

This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, associate editor Karen Turner, and critic at large Emily VanDerWerff discuss Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s drama about a drummer grappling with sudden hearing loss, starring Riz Ahmed.

Sound of Metal tells a familiar story of dealing with difficulty, but in a new way

Alissa Wilkinson: I didn’t get to see Sound of Metal until way after it was already critically acclaimed, but I was bowled over by it anyhow. The emotional arc of the film, Riz Ahmed’s and Paul Raci’s performances, the way it uses sound design to bring us into the story — it’s just an extraordinary film. I have been urging everyone I know to watch it for that reason.

One of Sound of Metal’s many strong points, narratively, is exploring what hearing people (and those who don’t live with other kinds of disabilities) might not fully grasp: the decision that Ruben (Ahmed) has to make about how, when, and why he will either seek surgery to replace his hearing or basically rewrite his life to live without it. Does he see himself as having a “defect,” or as living a different way? It’s subtle and powerful, and though I’ve never had that experience, I feel like the film helped me understand it in a new way.

What, for you, resonated most in Sound of Metal? What struck you or moved you about it?

Karen Turner: I was also really moved by this question at the heart of Ruben’s journey. The beginning of the movie makes clear that music was core to Ruben’s lifestyle before he experienced sudden deafness, meaning he loses not only his sense of hearing but his whole sense of identity. How can Ruben find the reflection and stillness to figure out not only how to be, but who he is now that he is deaf? For Ruben, there’s a kind of oscillation between his desire to share communal bonds with other deaf people and the desperate urge to come up with enough cash to fund an unfathomably expensive cochlear implant surgery (thanks, American health care system!) to give him some semblance of his old life back.

I particularly loved the parts of this film that took place in the rural New England home for deaf people where Ruben finds refuge. From the gruff but empathetic Joe (Raci), a vet who runs the group home to the room where Ruben takes American Sign Language classes, Ruben is brought into the rich world and way of life of the deaf community there. Scenes such as the rowdy dinner table where residents toss out jokes in sign language, or seeing deaf students place their hands on a grand piano as someone plays to feel the vibrations of the music, filled Sound of Metal film with tender, soulful moments.

I’ve also been interested in reading many of the responses to this film from deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Some have praised the filmmakers for casting deaf actors for many of the film’s parts (although notably, not the two main deaf characters in the film), its open captioning (meaning that captions are burned into the actual film, not an option to toggle on or off, which is something deaf activists have long pushed for in the wider film world), and for its emotionally raw depiction of sudden hearing loss.

Others have criticized the film for setting up a kind of all-or-nothing decision between deafness and the restoration of hearing through surgery, which some argue is much more fluid in reality. Regardless, Sound of Metal feels like an evolution in the portrayal of deaf and hard-of-hearing people onscreen that takes us beyond more one-dimensional depictions in past movies.

A close-up of Riz Ahmed’s face as he wears headphones.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Amazon Studios

Emily VanDerWerff: That’s a really interesting dichotomy you point to, Karen, because there are so few movies about people who are deaf that a film like this one does seem to set up a stark choice between deafness and the restoration of hearing. And for hearing audience members like myself, it’s really easy to conclude that this choice is that stark, when the reality is more nuanced.

But it’s also clear within the film that the choice is that stark for Ruben himself, and the movie is so laser-focused on his point of view that we get very little indication that there might be middle paths here. (Incidentally: What a year for Best Picture nominees that have an almost claustrophobic sense of being trapped in a singular perspective!) This dilemma is the burden of representation of groups that are rarely seen onscreen: Do we try our best to represent every possible point of view within that group, or do we just follow this one character’s story? Sound of Metal chooses the latter, which makes it a stronger film, but which also makes it not a particularly great introduction to debates within deaf communities more widely.

All that said, Sound of Metal’s use of nonverbal storytelling is simply exquisite. The ways in which the loss of hearing is a curse in the movie’s first half simply become a new way of living in the world in the second half. Once Ruben’s cochlear implants give him a version of hearing back, the dull distortion of, say, a party at his girlfriend’s father’s house has an ominousness to it. If the sound design of this film doesn’t win the Oscar, it will be truly unjust. I’ve rarely seen a movie use sound this effectively.

I do think the movie’s plotting is a bit sloppy, particularly in its third act, when Ruben’s reunion with Lou ends up feeling just a touch melodramatic. (She went back home and so easily reconciled with a father she apparently saw rarely? And slid into his life of luxury? It’s all plausible, but it doesn’t really fit with the character we saw earlier in the film.) But, honestly, that might be fine, because the first three-quarters of this movie, as Ruben learns to accept what’s happening to him and then gradually begins to thrive after realizing it doesn’t need to define him transform a well-worn Oscar movie type — the person who has to learn to deal with a new condition — by making it feel so much more immediate and visceral than it usually does.

Also, Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci, and Olivia Cooke do just astonishingly good work with characters who might have come across as clichés but feel real and lived-in here. Raci, in particular, all but walks away with this film. I’m so glad he was Oscar-nominated.

Alissa: Look, Emily, if your French dad was Mathieu Amalric, you might reconcile with him pretty easily, too. And I agree: Raci is incredible. His nomination might be my favorite detail about this Oscar season, and it’s one of those things I think might have slipped away in a more “conventional” Oscar year.

Speaking of the Oscars, I know we’re not all awards experts. But if a movie like this were to win, what about it do you think would attract the Academy members? What, to you, would it say about us if this movie was the representative of film in 2020?

Sound of Metal resonated in a year of isolation

Karen: I’m admittedly not super well-versed in the history of Oscar winners, but my sense is that Best Picture winners tend to be more epic, maybe a little more sweeping in scope than something like Sound of Metal, which has such an intimate feel to it and is, like you said, Emily, really a one-perspective film. The movie also has a really naturalistic tone, something it shares with Nomadland, and at times almost feels more like a documentary than a feature film. As mentioned, Riz Ahmed’s performance is in some ways classic Oscar-bait, but it also feels a little bit more subtle compared to other Best Actor winners that come to mind (I’m thinking of Joaquin Phoenix’s over-the-top Joker last year). All of that would make Sound of Metal a really interesting Best Picture winner, and one that I would hope would usher in more meditative filmmaking to the awards circuit.

In terms of this film being released at this particular moment, I do wonder if a movie like Sound of Metal built an audience in part because it was available to stream immediately on release during the pandemic. On the one hand, it’s the kind of story that might resonate better with isolated audiences who are in a more contemplative state and willing to soak up the atmosphere and specific point of view without worrying about how there isn’t that much plot. On the other hand, I found myself really wishing I could see this one in a theater, mostly because of that excellent sound design you’ve both brought up. So much of Sound of Metal is experienced sonically, and the crappy built-in speakers on my TV definitely didn’t do that justice, especially compared to how I imagine it would sound in a surround-sound theater.

A man sits holding drumsticks to show a group of children.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Amazon Studios

Emily: Sound of Metal is a classic example of Oscar voters getting really into a performance, then checking out the rest of the movie and realizing it’s great too. Riz Ahmed has slowly but surely built momentum all awards season, picking up nominations and praise for his work, and once he started to feel like a sure thing, it was easier for voters to realize that Sound of Metal is good beyond his performance. Its nomination for Best Editing is maybe my favorite one for the film, because the editing is relatively unflashy but also so hypnotically places you in Ruben’s perspective.

I think one reason the movie might have resonated more in this past year has to do with the way it focuses so much on how Ruben feels a little isolated from the world around him, both before he loses his hearing and after. The opening shot, after all, is of Ruben playing the drums, tucked away behind Lou, focusing intently. He’s already in his own world, and when he loses his hearing, he’s drawn into a community that he ultimately rejects.

The movie’s presentation of cochlear implants as a hard-and-fast binary maybe isn’t strictly accurate, but that read of the situation does feel true to Ruben’s character to me. He probably would look at the implants as “solving” his deafness — a “problem” that wasn’t really a problem, without quite realizing that such a solution would return him to the isolation he was in when the film began. Sound of Metal’s final sequence — with Ruben sitting on a bench in Antwerp, finally removing his implants’ processors so he can sit in silence — is so powerful because Ruben rejected the community he had been welcomed into in favor of the relationship he missed.

That decision is one we can all relate to at least a little bit, but it feels particularly raw here. It’s not that Lou doesn’t want Ruben around; it’s that his life has moved past her. She “saved” his life in a bunch of ways, but being saved implies the eventual onset of a time when one has to move past their savior to live as themselves. Sound of Metal presents Ruben trying to regain the life he lived while he was capable of hearing to be a regression of sorts. He had grown so much as a person, until he hadn’t.

Anyway, I think that’s why the movie resonated so much in 2020 and 2021 — the pandemic has isolated us, and that has made regression into older, less healthy versions of ourselves all the more likely. Ruben’s journey feels like a metaphor for so many of our journeys right now.

Karen: That’s such a great point. I would add, too, that the storyline about his addiction, which is something we haven’t touched on yet, also resonates here. Part of the tragedy of his hearing loss is that Sound of Metal heavily implies that music represented a turning point in Ruben’s journey with sobriety, so much so that the first person that Ruben and Lou call after Ruben loses his hearing is his sponsor. Because his relationship with music changes so drastically (though I should note that the film does depict that many deaf people still experience and enjoy music), Ruben is left without one of the key ways of managing his addiction.

This feels really relatable to me after the past year. One of the most challenging things has been dealing with the stress and anxiety of a pandemic without access to the things I usually depend on for relief, such as socializing, going to the gym, etc. What Ruben goes through is, of course, a very specific experience that I don’t want to broaden too much, but I do feel that the way he is forced to find new ways to cope with his demons is one that many people who lived through the pandemic can relate to.

Alissa: Wow, yes — I totally agree with both of you. And Karen, that point about being able to stream the film is a good one; this is the kind of movie that can be hard to convince people to see in a theater (even though you can imagine how fantastic it would be to experience the sound design in that space!). But it stands head and shoulders above a lot of the stuff people have been watching all year, without going over the top.

So I have one more question for you both: If someone watched Sound of Metal and loved it, are there other works you might recommend to them? Movies, books, TV shows, podcasts, articles — the door is wide open.

Two men sit facing one another, with a computer and equipment behind them.
Paul Raci and Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Amazon Studios

What to watch after you’ve seen Sound of Metal

Karen: The one movie that immediately jumped to mind when I watched this is Leave No Trace, which is one of those movies that I think about all the time. It’s about a vet struggling with PTSD and his teenage daughter who live in the forest largely cut off from the larger world. The film’s structure, where a nomadic pair are abruptly separated, bringing one of the characters into a peaceful, intentional community on the fringes of mainstream society, felt really aligned with Sound of Metal’s storyline. The films also share a very naturalistic and gentle tone and pace, both in the filmmaking and in the performances, that build into quietly heartbreaking climaxes.

My other recommendation would be The Night Of, which is an HBO crime drama that stars Riz Ahmed. It’s an outstanding series all around, but Riz was really the standout star. I’m such a fan of his and can’t wait to see what he does next.

Emily: Both of those recommendations are fantastic choices. I’m going to pick a couple of stories that center deafness. The first is the 2000 documentary Sound and Fury, which follows two families (within the same extended family) weighing whether to get cochlear implants for their deaf children. The movie surely doesn’t reflect contemporary debates on this topic — since it’s 21 years old, after all — but it presents a very nuanced view of why this is such a fraught topic among the deaf community.

I would also recommend the two-season Sundance Now series This Close, about two lifelong friends who are deaf, played by Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, who are both deaf in real life and are the series’ creators and showrunners. At just 14 half-hour episodes, it’s a breezy weekend watch, with some great characters and some really beautiful storytelling. It’s one of my favorite under-the-radar shows, and if you need something a bit lighter after Sound of Metal, it would be a great place to start. It’s available on the AMC+ app.

Alissa: I wish I could have recommended Riz Ahmed’s “livestreamed edition” of his album The Long Goodbye, which he performed solo. Unfortunately, the livestream ended in March, but it was an incredible exploration of his identity and heritage. If you get a chance to see it in the future, do not sleep on it. He’s a marvelously talented musician.

So instead I’ll point to something you can look forward to that’s not out yet: CODA (which stands for “child of deaf adults”), a film that brought down the house at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Apple TV+, most likely later this year. It’s funny and heartwarming and moving, and it won a whole bunch of awards at the festival. I wrote a little about it here. It’s a fine companion piece to Sound of Metal — and let’s hope there will be many more.

Sound of Metal is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.

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