Sound of Metal Finds Power Between Silence and Stillness

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There’s a little moment early in All My Life that gets the romantic flutters going in a genuine and wholesome way. It’s not the typical “meet cute”, nor some grand gesture or embrace. It’s the simplicity of a single look, scripted and captured on camera as something that would have been set to a Donna Troy do-wop classic nearly sixty years ago. Today, you get an Oasis cover instead. Paint this next picture.

Jessica Rothe’s Jennifer Carter has just enjoyed a unique first date with Harry Shum Jr.’s Solomon Chau, where they met up for a park jog before strolling through a weekend pop-up market of food trucks and urban farmers. In their moseying, the two get separated and the camera stays on Jessica; she realizes she’s lost Sol in the light crowd. We see her darting, searching look of smiling curiosity morph ever so slightly into a furrow of regretful worry that comes from truly missing someone.

Jennifer spots him, and it’s Sol looking right at her as she looks for him. He knows she was looking for him. She knows he saw her looking with that mounting little worry. It’s a special kind of eye contact with a little more heartbeat behind it, beyond receiving only a desirable smile. There is zero embarrassment on either side, just affection and instant connection.

This look and moment, which gets reminisced upon later as part of wedding vows, is the beginning of a very light and lovely shared journey in All My Life. From this opener onward, the two stars have each other, and us, hooked. Based on a touching true story, of temporary time impeding on a forever kind of love, this approachable and endearing romance stockpiles the smiles to brighten all the trials and tribulations that follow.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Normally, finding someone that makes you laugh is an opening qualification for many relationships. That’s almost too easy and not really enough. Finding someone who can cook is a great perk, especially when Sol Chau turns out to be an aspiring chef. Still, a real catch is when you can find someone you can comfortably share domestic mundanities with, who makes even those trivial activities cute. Find someone you can brush your teeth with. Find that and you’ll be pooping with the door open in no time.

That’s Sol and Jennifer, after their relationship enters the cohabitation stage with move-in rules that become artful and romantic negotiations. After a flash mob proposal (apropos from Shum’s Glee experience) sprung by their mutual friends (including Jay Pharoah, Chrissie Fit, and Marielle Scott), the engaged Jennifer and Sol work to adjust their jobs and save money for a perfect wedding. Things move swimmingly until Sol begins experiencing regular side pain that turns into aggressive and chronic liver cancer. Swimming turns into a sprint that neither can afford or finish without help.

To get assistance accelerating the preparation timeline amid unfathomable circumstances, those mutual friends start a GoFundMe account that raises thousands of dollars to make it all happen. All the while, through tests and treatments, Jennifer and Sol find strength from each other to step up with loving support to handle every setback. When all the gifts and favors come together, they are overcome with thankfulness for not only the generous gestures, but the time given to them by so many others. Sure, only two things are needed for a perfect wedding, those being the two lovers coming together, but rest is sure nice too.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

All My Life and the true story of Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter emphasizes so many invisible constraints of time and togetherness, with “now or never” as one of its rallying calls. The Rothe voiceovers, no doubt, do get plentiful, but without swinging too heavy of a Hallmark-level sledgehammer of manufactured mush. Everything can indeed change in a day. Do value those days, because they are so few. Have nothing to do with putting off things for later by living for the now. Do that with someone else and be loved. Her narrated words aren’t wrong.

With this rousing spirit present, All My Life brims with welcome optimism. With the side ventures of good food and good friendships along the way, this is a true noble effort with some delightful bonuses. That optimism, though, represents the highest peak of this movie from director Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer) and a debut screenplay by Todd Rosenberg. That’s plenty for the honorable intentions, but, to some degree, matters are a little too short, too sweet, and too chaste. The movie lacks a little extra passionate heat, and Meyers and Rosenberg leave more than a few tears on the table from being a full-on duct dumper and tissue box destroyer. Yes, no one roots for a true overwrought crusher, but the greater squeezes do create a better hold.

More often than not, simulating deafness in a movie is achieved by simply turning a knob on a sound mixer. Maybe a little ringing sound effect is added to break the total silence and signal the muted conditions. You know these moments, from concussive explosions in war movies to concussive blows in boxing ones. Nevertheless, they’re not very distinct and the effect is reserved for sudden circumstances. 

How many movies really linger on that arresting sensation in greater detail? How many movies portray the slipping volume with a gradual effect? How many make you candidly and tangibly feel the anxiety and confusion of that hazardous state? Most of all, how many trap you in the gravity of its possible permanence with how life must go on without it? 

With rock-heavy undertones replaced by the dramatic struggles of silence, Sound of Metal can personify every one of those questions. This labor-of-love and festival darling debuts on limited release and Amazon Prime on December 4th. Led by a sensational, internalized performance from Riz Ahmed, read here, see on the screen, and hear anyway you can, how this stands as one of the best films of the year.

Lou sings into a microphone on stage.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The Nightcrawler and Venom actor plays Ruben, a laser-focused hard rock drummer, working in tandem with lead singer and long-term partner Lou, played by Olivia Cooke of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. They ramble from gig to gig in an old RV that acts as their home as well. Ruben is a recovering drug addict who’s been clean for four years. Much of that success comes from the loving guidance of Lou, yet money and success remain hard to come by for the fledgling act. 

While contracting his lean muscles and sweating up a storm hitting the skins at a recent show, Ruben’s hearing gives way and goes out. Even after some down time, it’s not returning to full range. Seeing a doctor confirms what years of loud surroundings, minimal protection, and careless behavior have caused, namely considerable hearing loss that will get worse and become permanent. In disbelief, Ruben just wants it all fixed, which is a medical uncertainty. Troubled by this debilitation and carrying an unwillingness to preserve what hearing he has left, Ruben is driven to raise money for a risky and expensive surgery with no guarantees of successful repair. 

Ruben and Joe sit on a porch to talk.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The fear of a substance abuse relapse combines with his hearing impairment to the point where Ruben checks into a rural rehabilitation retreat for specialized therapy, run for the deaf by the benevolent and principled Joe (stage performer Paul Raci, in an award-worthy supporting performance). Here, Ruben discovers a new culture where handicaps don’t need fixing. Joe creates a strict new routine where everyone helps and assigns the very uncomfortable Ruben to shadow a school teacher (Lauren Ridloff) of children learning to communicate.

Paul reads the lips of Ruben intently in his office.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Apropos to his circumstances, the enormously entwined disquiet inside Ruben softens and squelches with time. Slowly but surely, he learns. Though robbed of his passion, he goes from feeling like an outsider to an active and positive contributor. He submits to improved habits as he learns to cope with what’s figuratively broken away from his ears and within the working organs in his head and in the center of his chest.

Convincing within this debilitating fate, at every beat and rest, is Riz Ahmed. His presence represents diversity and inclusion, but his performance transcends those tokens. More flamboyant actors would turn these dramatic hurdles into shouting matches and showy speeches to fill the silence with hot air. That’s not so with Ahmed in Sound of Metal

The actor carries an ever-present, galvanized intensity as a man of few words adamant to refuse this impaired destiny. His shell of agitation is astounding as it heals. Every little step of acceptance of those prospects brings out powerful new emotions from Riz. In addition to learning drums and ASL, his courage and commitment in this role is unquestioned for well-earned Oscar consideration. Those esteemed qualities are equaled by writer and first-time director Darius Marder (co-screenwriter of Derek Cianfrance’s hardscrabble opus The Place Beyond the Pines), who fought hard to make this tribute of a film.

Ruben looks up and back at Lou
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Sound of Metal all comes back to the inescapable shifts of its auditory ordeal. Marder and his assisting filmmakers employed brilliant sound design to imitate the deaf experience through more than simple mixes and ringing cliches. Staying virtually scoreless, co-musical composer and veteran foley artist Nicolas Becker (Gravity) served as a supervisor alongside sound editor Maria Carolina Santana Caraballo-Gramcko (The Sisters Brothers) to create an audio-scape of Ruben’s highs and lows. By immersing the audience in the same slipping weakness, the disorientation is jarring and palpable on a superior level. The slow-boiling panic becomes shared and the uneasy stillness subtly raises hairs more than any banging percussion or slayed guitar.

Speaking of stillness and silence, there is a tremendous weight of heart and profundity found in the difference between those two states in Sound of Metal. Silence is merely a setting of a setting, so to speak. Not all internal and external turmoil makes noise. Stillness is when all the triggers of carried and imposed unrest are managed or absent. It is not an impossible calmness, but where comfort and happiness are truly found. That sensitive trait of stillness is what Joe wishes for Ruben, and stands as the ideal state of mind and body that Ruben has to harness for personal peace. The journey to that place here is fraught with passionate fights and haunting hope, a movie experience not soon forgotten. 

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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