Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci. Directed by Darius Marder.
As we approach the finale of another awards season, this one marked by dodgy connections and delays on the Zoom chats, we can at least say that the quality of films made cannot be faulted. Sound of Metal might prove to be something of a dark horse in the Oscar race.
The film follows Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) one half of a hardcore duo with girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). When Ruben finds that he is starting to lose his hearing, his life is changed forever, and he goes to seek help from a community of deaf people lead by Joe (Paul Raci).
As visual as the medium of film is, it’s also often a very audio one, too. We don’t realise how much we rely on score, sound effects, dubbing and everything else to make the film work the way it should. When director Darius Marder has done is to exemplify that, and to put hearing audiences into the shoes of non-hearing audiences. Sound of Metal is cinema at its purest, one that combines visuals and sound to illustrate the story and convey what the main character is going through.
Marder often chooses not to give subtitles to certain scenes of sign language, cuts out all noise, distorts it, and makes it hard to stand to put us in the shoes of Ruben as he navigates a change in his circumstance. All of this would be a gimmick and a tacky one if it weren’t done with reverence and respect, not least in the form of actually deaf and hard of hearing people playing those who cannot hear.
It goes without saying that Riz Ahmed is sensational in the lead role — ever since he first came to attention with Four Lions Ahmed has challenged himself in new and different roles, challenging the stereotype of muslim actors in prominent roles. Here Ahmed shows us why he is such a phenomenal actor with a stirring performance. He looks the part as a hardcore drummer and recovering addict, but also someone that is heading towards a profound change. A scene in which he hits a slide to communicate with a deaf child calls to mind the father-son scene in Jaws.
Alongside him is Paul Raci, an actor also lavished with awards, whose sympathetic Joe is the easy to like mentor figure. You can imagine that in other hands, this could have been a gruff no-nonsense type, but Raci has an easy charm, and because he doesn’t come with a load of movie actor baggage is able to just convince you as he is on screen. Similarly, Olivia Cooke is sensational as Lou and yet seems to have been overlooked by awards, perhaps because she misses the second act of the film but the void of her is felt and she is utterly enchanting.
The film doesn’t dwell too much on the pain and anger that Ruben feels, and almost feels at pains to make it clear that people who are deaf can lead full, great lives – and it’s clear that they can. What Sound of Metal cleverly does is bypass the more indie spirited route of having Ruben become a mentor to a small deaf child and face obstacles in that manner – the film is less concerned with melodrama than it is introspection and small character moments.
Despite its trappings as a drama, this film has moments where it feels like a horror film — the horror of your body changing on you without warning and your life-changing. Like any other life-changing development, deafness is not treated like a sudden superpower but more like something that simply happens and has to be dealt with.
And therein lies the film’s strongest moments; people quietly dealing with their issues and changing as human beings do. Should Ahmed win that gong it’d be a deserving one, but regardless, this is another impressive performance from an actor that cannot be faulted, and a film that is as arresting as it is interesting.