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If you haven’t been paying attention to the rise of Riz Ahmed in Hollywood, you’ve been missing out. When given worthy material, regardless of the genre, the young actor is able to make the most out of every second of screen time with his unique energy, and is always captivating and impressive – be it in Chris Morris’ hilarious dark comedy Four Lions, Dan Gilroy’s brilliant thriller Nightcrawler, or Jacques Audiard’s refreshing western The Sisters Brothers. Any film that properly harnesses his power is a film worth being curious about, and that very much is Darius Marder’s Sound Of Metal all over.
Part character study and part aesthetic experiment, the movie has a high-concept plot that is executed with rawness and blunt emotional power, examining a rarely-explored world and crafting an affecting cinematic experience from it. It not only features some of the best work of Riz Ahmed’s young career, but instantly establishes Darius Marder as a filmmaker to keep an exceptionally close eye on.
Sound Of Metal is the story of Ruben (Ahmed), a recovering addict and drummer of a metal punk duo called Blackgammon with his girlfriend, Lou (Oliva Cooke), on vocals and guitar. They’re relatively successful, playing a nationwide tour and zigzagging across the country in their fully-equipped RV, but right before a show in Missouri Ruben notices that something is seriously wrong. Without any warning his hearing all but totally disappears, leaving the world sounding like indistinguishable fuzz.
Going to the doctor hoping that there is some kind of a fix, he instead gets the devastating news that he is almost entirely deaf, and that the only way to even try and slow the deterioration would be to stay away from loud noise – synonymous with him giving up his music career. At first he gives denial a spin, but when Blackgammon’s next show leaves his hearing even worse, he confesses to Lou what’s going on and his rage nearly brings him to the brink of using again.
Ruben learns that a cochlear implant would cost as much as $80,000 – money he doesn’t have – and his need to find a way to cope leads him to an organization for people like himself. It’s here that he works to try and adjust to his new way of life, but at the same time he endlessly struggles with his desire for things to go back to the way they were before.
Riz Ahmed delivers an all-in performance that is one of the best of the year.
It’s always wonderful to hear about actors fully committing to their roles through specific training, and Riz Ahmed’s turn in Sound Of Metal is a fantastic example, with the actor having both learned ASL and to play the drums in preparation for his performance. It’s dedication that pays off brilliantly in the film, adding a bonus layer of authenticity on top of what is already a deeply emotional turn. A person can only theorize about what their reaction would be to losing one of their senses, but Ahmed gives it justified scariness and intensity that makes the movie particularly enthralling, as Ruben’s whole life revolves around his appreciation of sound and noise. He makes the pain feel real, and it hits you in the gut.
Sound Of Metal presents a unique and fascinating experience with its use of sound, giving the title multiple meanings.
The journey taken by the protagonist in the film is not one we’ve seen frequently from Hollywood stories, and what makes it particularly effective is the way in which it’s able to put the audience inside of Ruben’s mind with awesome sound design and sound mixing – not to mention fixed closed captioning. Sound of Metal frequently lets the audience borrow the drummer’s ears, and that kind of point of view does everything to enhance and deepen your appreciation for what he’s going through. Riz Ahmed’s performance is so powerful that it’s not something that’s explicitly needed, but it’s also the perfect aesthetic touch.
On the subject, it’s also fascinating to realize how that special sound design evolves the meaning of Sound of Metal’s title throughout the movie. In the first act it can be read as the kind of music that Ruben plays and that he can no longer fully hear; then it’s about the feelings of reverberations felt through literal metal; and finally, without getting into spoilers, it will give you a new outlook on the phrase “tinny sound.” It’s a great illustration of the film’s layers, and impressive attention to detail.
Expected tropes are avoided in Sound Of Metal’s story, making it all the more powerful.
Even just the sheer originality of Sound of Metal makes it effortlessly easy to appreciate. Not only does it take on subject matter rarely seen in movies, but it also has no time to deal in any of the tropes you expect from stories about individuals with disabilities. There are certainly moments when you think you know the specifics of the path its taking, but the film doesn’t make time for the predictable, and instead finds fresh ways to both expand Ruben’s story and take him to fascinating emotional places. Right down to the final scene – which is a note of perfection – it trades in the unexpected, and captivates you with it.
It’s a shame that Sound of Metal isn’t getting the opportunity to play as a normal theatrical release due to the pandemic, as it’s a film that begs for the most immersive sound system possible – so hopefully it’s able to capture the attention it deserves and can possibly get a big screen re-release when the world returns to normal. What’s more important to recognize overall, however, is that the movie is incredible regardless of how you end up watching it.