Riz Ahmed’s stunning tour-de-force performance as a heavy metal drummer who suddenly goes deaf is the crown jewel of Sound of Metal, a deeply emotional directorial debut from Darius Marder.
We know it’s a little early to be making end-all-be-all statements about awards season, but if Riz Ahmed doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination for his performance in Sound of Metal, there is truly something wrong with the world. A truly astounding debut from Darius Marder, Sound of Metal is the kind of achingly honest and impactful film that will stay with you for months (and probably years) after you’ve seen it, and we mean that in the best way possible.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal follows the story of heavy metal drummer Ruben (Ahmed) who suddenly begins to realize that he is losing his hearing. Within a number of days, Ruben’s hearing is almost completely gone, turning both his and his girlfriend Lou’s (Olivia Cooke) worlds upside down. Without the money for a cochlear implant and unable to continue touring, lest he damage his ears irreparably, Ruben is convinced to spend some time at an all-deaf community run by Joe (Paul Raci), who helps him understand and grow accustomed to his new way of life.
Without question, Sound of Metal is a film that revolves almost entirely around Ahmed’s lead performance, and for good reason: Ahmed’s gut-wrenching turn as Ruben is one of the most gripping performances we’ve seen in recent memory. Ruben himself is a fascinating character — a metal drummer, yes, but he doesn’t fit into any stereotypes about being hot-tempered or violent. It’s clear that he has a passion for his craft, and an equal love of his girlfriend Lou. As such, he initially rails against staying at Paul’s community because it means he’ll lose the two most important things in his life.
However, once Ruben arrives at the community, he’s very much a fish out of water — not awkward, per se, but with the one-two punch of losing his hearing and suddenly relocating to a close-knit group of people he’s never met before, Ruben is understandably introverted and initially unwilling to accept his new surroundings. But Ahmed is able to instantly capture the spirit of the character from the second we meet him. There is an honesty and rawness to his performance that makes it incredibly easy to not just empathize with Ruben, but feel as if he’s somebody you really know.
The camera often lingers on his mesmerizingly expressive eyes. For a would-be rockstar, Ruben is remarkably introverted, and the most significant parts of his performance are often in what he doesn’t say rather than what he does. Ahmed has an immense physicality about him. The quiet twitchiness of a former drug addict, a self-awareness that Ruben is painfully aware of how much he sticks out initially, and everything from how he walks to how he stands to how he signs just bleeds vulnerability and honesty.
There are some scenes early on where Ahmed gets to really flex his muscles. Ruben’s initial despair and helplessness are difficult to watch, but even in those heavy and dramatic moments, Ahmed never over-acts or goes for the low-hanging fruit. His performance is one of restraint and nuance — and thanks to his incredible command of the screen, you find yourself quickly and completely falling into step with Ruben, breathing the same breaths and experiencing everything through his eyes just as it happens.
The ease with which you come to understand and care for Ruben — obviously due to Ahmed’s talent — can also be attributed to the deft and deliberate direction from Marder, whose command of the camera will leave you shocked that this is his film directing debut. Under Marder’s eye, the shots are slow, uncluttered, and very deliberate, putting an immense amount of trust (and rightfully so) in his actors and letting the audience soak in every little nuance in the performances he draws from them.
The sound design, too, must be celebrated. If it’s safe for you do to so, we recommend that you see Sound of Metal in theaters, lest you miss the incredible mixing and editing on display. The sound design mimics Ruben’s hearing loss (and his later hearing as impacted by the cochlear implant), and it’s astoundingly effective in how it helps to further push the audience into Ruben’s shoes.
Though Ruben may be at the center of Sound of Metal, he isn’t the film’s only character, and Ahmed is supported by two particularly capable costars, Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci. As Ruben’s girlfriend Lou, Cooke is heartbreaking, even though she only appears for a total of 30 minutes, half at the film’s beginning and then again in its conclusion. Lou has the same sad, soulful eyes as her boyfriend, and Cooke brings the depth and conflict of a woman who wants to be there for the one she loves, but just isn’t sure how after spending so much time apart.
While Lou can’t help Ruben, though, it’s Raci’s Joe — the man who runs the deaf living community where Ruben stays — that can. As Joe, Raci is severe and at times intimidating, but also inherently likable, and with a sort of tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. At first, Ruben seems to view Joe as almost a sort of jailer, but it’s immediately clear to the audience that Joe has an incredible empathy and weariness that makes him the perfect person to take Ruben in. This makes it so that when Ruben goes behind Joe’s back and gets a cochlear implant, we feel the emotional blow that it is to Joe — because even if Ruben didn’t intend to hurt his newfound friend, that’s exactly what he did.
Sound of Metal is significant in how it portrays deafness and the community that develops among deaf people. Ruben (and the audience) begin the film with the mindset that his sudden hearing loss is a problem to be fixed or a hurdle to be overcome, but as the film progresses, we get to see the new sense of belonging and love that Ruben finds in the deaf community. Joe makes it very clear to Ruben that there is no shame or disadvantage in being deaf — that it unites everyone in the community. And just when Ruben seems to be getting the hang of things, he secretly sells his RV and music equipment to finance getting a cochlear implant.
This is where Ruben’s addict tendencies rear their ugly head. He’s desperate to get his hearing back, and willing to give up all that he has and sever his connection with Joe and the rest of the deaf community to do so. Ruben misguidedly believes that getting the cochlear implant will be an instantaneous fix, but the second the implant is activated, both he and the audience immediately understand that things aren’t so simple. After all the time he spent learning to sign and forge new relationships with Joe and the others, for Ruben to throw it all away and get the implant is incredibly significant — and what ends up happening is that he immediately is forced to realize that it’s not the miraculous fix he thought it would be.
Sound of Metal‘s ending isn’t a tragic one, because to paint the implant’s shortcomings as a failure would be a slap in the face of the deaf community and the importance of signing. Instead, there’s a beautiful and quiet ambiguity to the film’s final shot, which is Ruben turning off the grainy buzzing of his implant, and re-immersing himself in the peace of his deafness. At first, some may find it upsetting or unfulfilling, but Ahmed’s beautiful performance and Ruben’s direction make the scene the perfect conclusion to a film that challenges its audience to re-evaluate their own pre-conceived notions of what it means to be deaf.
Honest, emotional, and incredibly raw, Sound of Metal is unquestionably one of 2020’s best films. Under Marder’s capable direction, Ahmed delivers a performance so moving that it’s impossible not to be floored by it.
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