The right combination of actor and filmmaker, combined with true ambition and dedication, can result in magic. Sound of Metal is one such example of this, with co-writer/director Darius Marder and actor Riz Ahmed blowing you away. Not simply content to tell a compelling story, they also give you the experience of the protagonist. That makes for far more than a simple character study. In depicting a musician’s loss of hearing, they simulate what that feeling must be like to unsettling and degree. Ahmed and Marder make you feel for the lead character because they’re talented, but they also put you in his shoes in a way we’ve never really seen (or heard) before.
Sound of Metal doesn’t just tell you about what losing someone’s hearing can do to that person, it projects it with its sound design. The result is something wholly unique, to say the least. It demands to be seen, if only for the experience. Luckily, Ahmed’s performance is also a must-see, so there are multiple layers of goodness on display here.
Over a year after the flick first played the festival circuit, it’s now coming out this week, but it’s well worth the wait. Not only is it incredibly good work from Ahmed (more on that later), but the auditory side of things is astonishing as well. This really does fire on all cylinders.
Ruben (Ahmed) is leading the typical life of a struggling musician. The drummer in a heavy metal band, he lives in a van with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), the lead singer in the band. They’re happy, seemingly hoping for a big breakthrough soon. Then, the ringing in Ruben’s ears gets worse, followed by one morning just a pop. Suddenly, he can barely hear. A trip to the doctor confirms major damage and the sad truth that he needs to prevent things from getting worse. That means not drumming anymore, as well as quitting the band. Ruben has no interest in this, and instead focuses on a cochlear implant, which would restore some of his hearing. It’s incredibly expensive, so he can’t get it quite yet, but that’s the plan. Lou, however, knows the former addict is in a bad place, and wants to help.
100% determined to get the implant, Ruben is blind to how he’s free-falling, though when Lou takes him to a place where he can learn to be deaf, the reaction is worse than expected. Convinced by Joe (Paul Raci), the head of the program, to stay, Ruben struggles to fit in. Learning to read lips or sign language is slow going, so he’s frustrated, to say the least. Still, while Joe wants him to learn how to live thus new life, Ruben still plans on the surgical implant, hoping that will mean he can return to his prior life with Lou.
Riz Ahmed is amazing here, doing easily the finest work of his career so far. He’s intense and stubborn, just like you’d expect a heavy metal drummer to be. At the same time, he slowly lets you in, giving Ruben extra layers. Plus, the way he depicts having lost his hearing is not just moving, it feels accurate to the situation. Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci are good too (as is Mathieu Amalric in a small role), but this is Ahmed’s show.
Filmmaker Darius Marder really goes above and beyond here. The script he co-wrote with Derek Cianfrance (an acclaimed director in his own right) and Abraham Marder is fantastically sturdy, giving you only what you need. However, it’s Marder’s direction, especially with how he utilizes sound, that demands attention. Marder makes sound, or the lack thereof, a prime element of the film, to stupendous effect. We’re always up close and personal with Ruben, so the sound, not just the visuals, raising things to an even higher level.
Awards wise, Sound of Metal is primarily a player for Riz Ahmed in Best Actor. However, don’t sleep on its potential in Best Original Screenplay. Plus, if voters really do take to its design, Best Sound could be on the table, too. If those were to happen, would a Best Picture nomination be too shocking? Ahmed in Actor is main focus, but there are other possibilities here, too.
Sound of Metal will leave you stunned. There hasn’t been anything quite like it, and considering its independent nature, that’s even more of an achievement. Riz Ahmed’s turn is one of the year’s best, while the overall experience is incredibly memorable. When you give it a look (and you definitely should), it’s the sort of movie that will stay with you. Prepare to be compelled, shaken, and moved.