Riz Ahmed is a multi-hyphenate talent, who as well as being an actor is a writer, director, producer and DJ. His last two films have been personal projects – Sound of Metal (shown at TIFF 2019 and AFI Fest 2020) and Mogul Mowgli (shown at LFF 2020) – are both about musicians who have their careers derailed by something physical, but are also haunted by inner demons. In the case of Mogul Mowgli, he plays a rapper struck with an auto-immune disease who is also haunted by his past and his place within his family/culture. In the case of Sound of Metal, he plays a drummer who loses most of his hearing and is also struggling with addictions.
Derek Cianfrance – best known for his (Jumpcut Mascot) Ryan Gosling collaborations Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines – came up with the story for Sound of Metal and it’s written and directed by Pines co-writer Darius Marder. Cianfrance and Marder are very much continuing their examinations of damaged and self-destructive men here, while still ensuring that the audience care about them. British actors Olivia Cooke and Riz Ahmed both play Americans, which seems unnecessary, as it wouldn’t be unheard of for a British metal band to be touring the US. Cooke plays Lou, the lead singer of the band and Ruben’s (Ahmed) girlfriend. They have been living together in an Airstream for four years and during this time Ruben has remained clean and sober.
The depiction of Ruben’s deafness, with an ingenious use of sound design is one of the greatest strengths of Sound of Metal. The only thing that seems slightly surprising is that Ruben is portrayed as going deaf practically overnight. It’s a sudden change, rather than a gradual decline, which seems more likely for someone who has been damaging their ears with loud music for years. Ruben is very much in denial at first, thinking it’s just temporary or not that serious. As it gradually becomes clear that it’s not going away, Lou gets worried that he’s going to relapse with his addictions and takes him to a commune in the middle of nowhere which is specifically for deaf people who are in drug and alcohol recovery.
Joe (a lovely performance from Paul Raci), the leader of the community, immediately recognises that Ruben is a long way from acceptance. Ruben is determined to get cochlear implants, thinking he can magically be cured and go back to drumming. Joe does not view deafness as something that needs to be fixed, even though he also wasn’t born deaf (it was caused by an explosion in ‘Nam) and he wants Ruben to start adapting to his new way of life. Ruben is resistant to learning sign language or how to lip-read at first, but he gradually becomes interested in the kids at the local school for the deaf, who give him a different perspective on his condition.
Meanwhile, Lou has continued to tour without Ruben and has gone to visit her father (Mathieu Amalric) in Paris. I would have liked to have known a lot more about Lou (not least why she has decided to dye her eyebrows bleach-blonde) and it’s frustrating that Cooke only has limited screen-time – her impact is felt at both the start and end of the film, but she is absent for most of it. Cooke is an interesting actress, with a taste for the Gothic – The Quiet Ones, The Limehouse Golem and Thoroughbreds, as well as more high-profile fare – Me and Earl and The Dying Girl and Ready Player One. We really only see Lou through Ruben’s eyes and feel his dependence on her, as she certainly seems intrinsic to his sobriety.
The sound design (which is surely set for Oscar nominations) is immersive at conveying Ruben’s loss of hearing and when he does sell the Airstream to pay for the cochlear implants, the new reality of how he experiences sound is potentially worse than not hearing anything at all. I wish the film had gone even further at portraying Ruben’s aural point-of-view, so we could have spent whole long stretches of the film with no sound or distorted sound. If we’d spent a large part of the mid-section in silence, the shocking jolt of the implants being turned on would have been even more visceral. Apparently the original TIFF screening had subtitles onscreen throughout the whole film.
Although some screenplay or directorial decisions can be nit-picked, the thing carrying you through the film and holding the experience together is Ahmed’s performance. He takes you through the stages-of-grief Ruben is feeling for the loss of his former life in an extremely compelling and believable way. Ahmed ensures that you are still rooting for Ruben, no matter how obstinate and stubborn he’s being. His interactions with older male mentors – Joe and Lou’s father – are highlights and when his acting is particularly impressive. When alone, his quiet devastation is not overblown and this is not in any way a ‘showy’ performance. This kind of subtle restraint deserves to be recognised more than those who are determined to have a Oscar-reel moment of grandstanding in their films.
There is little doubt that Ahmed will be writing and directing more films in the future and it will be interesting to see which subjects he tackles next. He certainly chooses his acting roles extremely carefully, with a personal connection or something he feels passionate about. This comes across onscreen and he is an exciting British talent, who will potentially now be getting some awards attention. He thoroughly deserves it for Sound of Metal, which is an acting tour-de-force and the film’s sound design is also worthy of the praise it has been getting. A brilliant depiction of a man whose life capsizes overnight and must gradually adjust to a new reality, with many bumps along the road.
Sound of Metal will be available in UK and Irish cinemas 11th December 2020 and on Amazon Prime in the US on 4th December.