The Oscar-nominated actor plays a musician struck down by a sudden condition, anchoring a fascinating but sometimes staid film
Coming out less than six months after Mogul Mowgli, here is another Riz Ahmed star vehicle in which he plays a musician on the cusp of a tour, who is struck down by a sudden and unexpected degenerative condition which forces him to re-examine his priorities and find out who he really is.
Beneath these admittedly striking but otherwise surface-level similarities, however, Sound of Metal separates itself with an innovative and fascinating approach to the condition that grows to define Ahmed’s character. He plays Ruben, a drummer in a moderately successful metal band fronted by his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, here with bleached eyebrows that make her look a bit like an alien). Whilst prepping for a gig, his hearing cuts out almost completely, an event relayed to the audience through masterful, immersive sound design.
Writer and director Darius Marder frequently throws us into Ruben’s head, and it’s a dizzying experience, with crackles of white noise interspersed with the occasional dim sentence and percussive vibrations. It depicts deafness in a way I’ve never experienced in a film before, and this stylistic coup is backed up by an empathetic and enlightening insight into the politics of the deaf community. After Ruben’s hearing disappears, he fears a relapse into his old heroin habit, so Lou finds him a community support centre for the deaf, where he starts to learn to come to terms with his situation and find an identity outside of his music.
Ruben’s time here makes for Sound of Metal’s most interesting moments. The staff and residents at the centre, led by the gruff but charming Joe (Paul Raci), are mostly played by deaf actors – Raci can hear, but both his parents were deaf – making for a far more natural and nuanced take on disability than most films offer. Ruben builds relationships through gestures and art, teaching deaf kids to drum and sketching lewd drawings for his fellow residents, and as he gets more comfortable with his condition, we begin to get used to it, too.
Marder handles this transition expertly, and Ahmed does a reliably fantastic job that has very deservedly landed him an Oscar nomination. He adds new strings to his already impressive bow with a newfound swaggering physicality and hard-won likeability. The flashes of fear on Ruben’s face when his hearing first disappears are shocking, and the moments of joy when he starts making real connections within the deaf community are infectious.
Outside of this central stretch, though, Sound of Metal is rather generic and predictable. Cooke is wasted as Lou in a severely underwritten role, and a late-in-the-day reunion between her and Ruben has very little impact, whilst some medically-minded scenes border on parody. At Ruben’s first doctor’s appointment, he’s told that he desperately needs to protect the little hearing he has left, so of course the next shot shows him attending his next metal gig. Route one writing like this pops up throughout, and whilst it doesn’t exactly spoil things, it does keep Sound of Metal from reaching its full potential.
As an insight into a community rarely portrayed with nuance on screen, Sound of Metal is a major work, its deaf cast given complex roles and chances to articulate their complex relationship with the hearing world. Marder’s use of sound is inspired, and even though the script can’t always keep up with the style, this is still a unique cinematic experience anchored by yet another powerhouse performance from Ahmed.
Sound of Metal is available on Prime Video from 12 April and in cinemas from 17 May.Where to watch