Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is about a heavy metal drummer, Ruben Stone (played by Riz Ahmed, in a career best role), as he copes with gradual hearing loss. It is heart-wrenching, emotionally powerful, and captivating, and it would be none of the above without the immersive experience that the seasoned crew creates: the feeling that we, too, are experiencing hearing loss along with Ruben. No one can really predict the Oscars, but here is an educated guess—the talented sound team behind this impressive film, written by Marder himself, will easily land a nomination in the newly-combined Best Sound category, and currently, it has the greatest chances of a win.
It is not just that the movie sports the word “sound” in the title—although that helps. It is also not simply that the resumés by the remarkable team will net them accolades—though that, too, speaks for itself (more on that below). It is as simple as it being the most deserving sound design you will hear all year. The deserving work starts with the boomingly loud but somehow tolerable moments when Ruben and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) do their best to bust your eardrums with their brand of music, to the moments when Ruben’s hearing begins to fade and the soundtrack toggles between the fading, muffled noises that he hears and the regular sound everyone else, to, finally, the crackling, static-ridden cacophony that enters Ruben’s head through a hearing aid.
The emotional epicenter of the story—which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019—is that Ruben has already gone through a great deal of pain in his life. He is four years sober, after a near-death experience with addiction, and losing his hearing is like losing his last lifeboat to sanity. Things look good for him as he starts to gain some notoriety for his duo with Lou, called Blackgammon. When his hearing begins to go, Ruben is not only not able to cope, he is not able to even accept it. Dejected, he moves into a deaf community run by the kind but firm Joe (Paul Raci), and begins to learn sign language—along with content acceptance (not resignation) about his conditions. Acceptance does not come easily to the defiant, ambitious Ruben, though, and the stability he had painstakingly achieved is shattered as he is torn between wanting to “cure” his condition and embracing it.
In addition to Ahmed’s critical and excellent portrayal, the key to telling Ruben’s story well is being able to hear what he hears throughout the different stages of his suffering. This is where the A-team that Marder put together comes in. Head Sound Mixer Phillip Bladh had the difficult task of overseeing different volumes and opacities for dialogue to create the deafening illusion. He has experience with loud, rambunctious soundtracks, including for Nicole Kidman’s Destroyer and the animated Sausage Party, though he has never participated in something this ambitious.
Next up are a series of Re-Recording Mixers, veterans of the films by Mexico’s “Three Amigos” movie directors — Jaime Baksht participated in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, along with Michelle Couttolonec, who also worked on the impressive sounds in Mexico’s 2021 Oscar submission, I’m No Longer Here. Both share mixing duties in this film with Carlos Cortes Navarrete, who worked on the sound for certain international versions of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The team is rounded out by Carolina Santana, whose experience includes The Sisters Brothers and At Eternity’s Gate, who, along with Nicholas Becker, worked as sound editors and designers. Together, this superb sextet recreate what Ruben must be hearing when the loud, broken noises of the hearing aid invade his brain, when voices become distant, and when the heavy metal becomes much, much softer. Their most impressive feat, however, is switching back and forth between the silence Ruben perceives and the dialogue others do. It is in those moments of cramped silenced that Sound of Metal — which presumably would have been called The Sound of Silence if that name hadn’t been used by an Oscar-winning documentary — is at its most effective, its most disturbing.
The rest of the Sound of Metal crew acquits itself well enough, particularly Mikkel E.G. Nielsen and his at-times flashy, at-times tender editing. None are particularly noteworthy in the otherwise simple film that lacks notable sets, costumes, or even cinematography. To really appreciate this film you have to hear, not see it, and it is truly a shame most of us will not experience it with the glory of a good movie theater sound system. At least they will hear their names called at The Dolby—if that’s where the Oscars even happen.
The Sound of Metal is now playing in some theaters and will stream on Amazon Prime Video starting December 4.
If this review has you intrigued, look for Below the Line’s interview with Nicholas Becker tomorrow.