The upcoming Oscar 2021 nominations now revealed and, as predicted by many, one of the standout movies was Sound of Metal earning six nominations (best picture, actor, supporting actor, original screenplay, sound, and film editing) and ending up joint second for most nominations behind the ludicrous 10 nominations earned by Mank. I put off watching Sound of Metal because it deals something that is one of my worst fears and I wanted to be in the right head space for it. I will speak briefly about the movie in general – what I liked and disliked – but, I enjoy bringing to light little things that matter more to me (when applicable), and Sound of Metal has a particularly tough one to write about; acting decisions. I really like Riz Ahmed, in general, and I think that his nod is well earned and (with the exception of The Father and Minari which I have not seen yet) a very likely winner and a lot of that is down to the decisions he made as an actor that paid off big time for him; however, there were instances that his decisions lost me and are worthy of discussion as well.
Sound of Metal is a drama about Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who sets off on a tour with girlfriend/singer Lou where their band’s career is seemingly about to kick off; unfortunately, Ruben begins to experience distorted hearing and eventually looses his hearing almost completely, which derails his career, life, and threatens to plunge him back into drug addiction. I am terrified of this happening to me; movies, games, music, writing, reading, these are not just hobbies for me. They are my life and my passion, so anything that would derail my ability to experience these things would be devastating to say the least, and Sound of Metal’s major accomplishment as art is that it allowed me to experience that fear as any good tragedy does; I sympathized with Ruben and the specifics of his character, I experienced that situation safely, and I saw the worst and best aspects of having to go through that, gaining a new perspective and appreciation of what I have. Nowhere is this quality more represented than in the sound design and Sound of Metal is a must-win for that category, especially considering the difficulty and fine balance they achieved for the whole last act; the relief of the events only lasting for seconds and the visuals acting as bonus for what the audience can hear and feel in those moments with the final moments acting as a perfect end to Ruben’s story. Darius Marder’s directing and writing are also great, especially when they are presented with the near immaculate precision of the editing where nothing is wasted and the visuals are able to tell the story, on their own, in a coherent and easy to read way.
That being said, I’m also a bit disappointed by the movie; seeing as how the premise can literally frighten me to lose sleep over just from the idea of it, I wasn’t as affected as I thought I would be. Yes, I experienced something that I do not wish to experience through the movie, but I was not moved by it; the actors were phenomenal, the editing was precise, yet I turned off the movie and went to bed not really thinking about it. Part of it is the focus of this article, but mostly it is that expectations were set really high for the movie and it got really close to meeting them, but just fell short. I wanted a bit more with the community or the school Ruben attends to as a way of learning how to adapt to his new reality, as well as a bit more time given to Ruben accepting the process and the new norms presented to him, rather than fast-forwarding beyond those struggles to focus on (understandably) more dramatic aspects of his journey.
Above all the other features, Riz Ahmed’s acting was the most essential aspect the movie had to get; sound, editing, writing, directing, everything will go through Ruben since he is our focus and he is always present. Olivia Cooke is very good in the movie, but she is not a big part of it – she’s present in the first and last 20 minutes and she has an important role to fulfill, which she does brilliantly, but that is the extend of her physical presence in the runtime – while, Oscar nominated Paul Raci is a much bigger part of the movie and he gets to do so much more with that (and he definitely deserves the nomination), which I will discuss below, however that is where some spoilers will be mentioned so if you haven’t seen the movie, this is your warning.
The first decision I really liked about Ruben’s character being represented is how much of his anger is visibly repressed in the beginning. When Ruben starts working out in his small RV, he has a lot of energy that slowly builds up as he visibly gets more aggressive with his exercises; it feels like he is treating the exercises as a stress ball to relieve the anger that builds up inside him. It makes what follows and Ruben’s reactions more understandable and easier to comprehend as something that is in line with his character. In relation to this, when he wakes up Lou and they start talking, dancing, and being together, the serenity he shows and can be felt is again a great way to foreshadow how important Lou is for him. Following these two, Ruben’s hyperventilating and over-reactive and energetic ways to deal with the early parts of loosing his hearing manage to get the best out of being melodramatic and realistic. Ruben is dealing with loosing something very dear to him and it will have irreversible effects on his career, relationship, and life, so melodrama is needed and Ahmed’s acting in these situations is expertly handled.
However, there are some decisions that I didn’t particularly like from Ahmed and the reasons are twofold; first, these decisions are contrasted to the Raci performance, which does not miss a beat throughout his presence in the movie, and secondly, unlike most of the movie, they come off as someone trying too hard. An easy example to showcase this is the “empty room” scenes, where Raci’s character (Joe) asks Ruben to sit alone in a room, but if he can’t do that, he should use the pen and paper to write whatever he wants. Ahmed here is too quick and “quirky” with how he escalates this scene; within seconds of getting in the room, he is punching a donut and putting back together to punch it again. To be fair, this is the escalation of his character up to this point, the fact that he clearly cannot be alone with his thoughts and his unwillingness to come to terms with his condition, however – unlike in other scenes from the movie – Ahmed does not utilize this to his benefit and goes for rawness over something more refined. Contrasting this to Joe (who is obviously more experienced and at peace with his condition) whose subtelty in how he deals with Ruben and his own emotions, makes Ruben feel a bit off in those moments.
In general though, I really liked Sound of Metal and the acting on display; Ahmed’s performance is so good that the few nitpicks I have are just more impactful because they are the only details he does not execute to perfection, while Raci is wonderful and will hopefully be seen a lot more following the reception to the movie. There are also the plentiful small details with character framing, angles, and visual storytelling I love, and the writing is enviously good; the whole last act is something very few filmmakers can pull off and it is something that deserves a lot of recognition and praise. I feel like the movie could have been more impactful and it could have used 10 extra minutes to a great effect, but I do hope the success means more opportunities and trust given to the filmmakers and actors because Sound of Metal is a sublime showcase of what happens when talent, attention to detail, and passion for doing something that deserves to be and desire to get it right, are given the backing they deserve.