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(Darius Marder’s buzzed about narrative-feature debut Sound of Metal is streaming now on Amazon Prime. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Woven together with tough dramatic sinew, Darius Marder’s narrative-feature debut, Sound of Metal, spreads itself like a thick quilt of catharsis, sometimes uncomfortably heavy yet always providing a blanket of moving, engaging cinema under which to lose oneself. Starring Riz Ahmed (Venom) as Ruben, a drummer in a metal duo with romantic partner Lou (Olivia Cooke, Katie Says Goodbye), the film follows his trajectory after he suddenly loses almost all his hearing. Initially reluctant to accept the new reality, Ruben, four years sober, must confront demons past and present as he battles the twin pulls of addiction and depression. Even as he leans on his lead actor’s vibrant onscreen magnetism, Marder also populates the movie with a strong supporting ensemble, accompanying the whole with simple-yet-effective mise-en-scène and evocative sound design. As we watch Ruben (maybe) learn to appreciate the treasures life might still hold for him, we, ourselves, are made richer for having spent time in his company.

We begin with a cacophony of noise, all part of the dynamic music performed by Ruben and Lou. And then, peace, the morning after, as Ruben prepares breakfast, following meditation and exercise, in their cozy Airstream trailer. The couple shares a relaxed routine, each at home with the other, unavoidable differences making them stronger. They’re on a cross-country when the main tragedy strikes, starting with an intense ringing that soon overtakes all else, the soundscape plunging us into Ruben’s disorientation. The show must go on, however, and so he plays, even as he is unable to quite match Lou beat for beat.

When Ruben finally confesses what has happened, as much to himself as to Lou, and seeks medical attention, the news is as bad as it can be: the hearing is not coming back, and will vanish even more quickly unless he stops the very thing that he loves. Cochlear implants are a possibility, but the $40,000 minimum cost is prohibitive. Meanwhile, Lou becomes concerned that this turn of events might lead Ruben back into drug use, and so finds a recovery center nearby for deaf addicts. To force the issue, she leaves, and with little apparent choice, though hardly willing, Ruben stays.

The community is run by Joe (Paul Raci, a hearing actor who is the child of deaf parents), who long ago gave up drinking and now does his best to help others like him. He’s seen the likes of Ruben before, and sympathizes with what he is going through. Still, he has rules. Most of the middle section of the film centers around Ruben’s struggles to adapt to his deafness without giving into existential despair. And begin to adapt he does, learning American Sign Language, helping out in the next-door school and making friends. But all along, he has a plan, to get those implants and get back to Lou. No matter what progress he makes, it’s hard to shake the dream that one day, all will return to how it was.

And so Marder moves this gripping tale of high stakes in a seemingly small setting along, each scene fraught with deep emotion and pain that must, somehow, be dealt with if not overcome. There’s a lot to process here, and it’s not always easy to watch, but it’s almost always worth the suffering, within and without. By the end, when we change locations once more, adding another fine actor, Mathieu Amalric, Ismael’s Ghosts), into the mix, we are prepared for anything, unsure of Ruben’s motives or intentions. That’s the essential beauty of the narrative: the sound of metal may be elusive, but it’s sharp, like a dagger to the soul.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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