Film Review: Riz Ahmed Brings Audiences Face-to-Face With Unimaginable Vulnerability in ‘Sound of Metal’
A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Language: English, American Sign Language, French
Runtime: 120 mins
When it comes to films about obsession, Darren Aronofsky is probably one of the first few contemporary filmmakers to pop up in discussions. A number of his films — Pi, The Wrestler, Black Swan — centre around the madness that comes when one’s identity is consumed by their passion, and the inevitable tragedy when the two are separated.
Darius Marder’s debut feature Sound of Metal presents a poignant counterpoint. Through Riz Ahmed’s astounding performance and brilliant sound design, the film displays its understanding of this same madness. It’s an uneasy watch where even its audio has the ability to puncture. Yet the film also echoes with humanity at every corner. It swells with hopelessness just to find peace within it.
Riz Ahmed stars as noise music drummer Ruben. He leads a nomadic life touring with his girlfriend-bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). Years on stage amidst deafening music finally catches up to him as his listening abruptly drops out. Persuaded by her worried girlfriend, the drummer reluctantly joins a deaf community, led by Vietnam War veteran Joe (Paul Raci).
The heavy metal and punk subcultures pride themselves on their refusal for anyone or anything to define their identity. Their rebellion can be heard from their music, seen from their loud apparels and countless tattoos. It’s all about being in full control of their lives. Sound of Metal pits this energy against an insurmountable foe.
However, Ruben is only human. He had just won his battle against drug addiction a few years prior. Music and Lou were his salvation. His hearing loss looks to tear them away from him. Ahmed submerges his character in an unimaginable depth of vulnerability hidden by a thin facade of strength. He remains the film’s sole focus and only delivers haymakers after haymakers.
So much trust is conferred by the camera to maintain its closeups, bringing audiences face-to-face with Ahmed’s wide-eyed fear. There are less than a handful of gasps for air where the film breaks into airy wide shots. These clear and simple techniques allow the film’s audio storytelling to take centre stage.
The meticulous attention towards its sound design creates an extraordinarily unique experience. All throughout, the film dips into Ruben’s aural perspective, pulling audiences into the now-muted world of a terrified musician. From the horrific suddenness of Ruben’s hearing loss to the muffled desolation of his condition, one cannot help but wonder how these were done; the craftsmanship is remarkable. The painfully vivid anguish conjured from audio alone cuts deep.
There is no return from Ruben’s hearing loss yet Sound of Metal begins and ends at almost the exact easiness of peace. There is no playful or cruel irony at play. While the story does stumble and lean close to feeling underwritten and overstated, these missteps are hardly noticeable amidst the film’s poetic pace. It constantly contrasts polar opposites — first combatively before melding them together into one. The film collapses and folds Ruben’s old and new identities almost to the point where there is no choice but for him to endeavour on.
None of the characters showcases exceptional courage either. Ruben finds solace within the deaf community but they are in no way stronger than he is. One of the film’s most heartbreaking moments comes from Paul Raci, where the no-nonsense community leader breaks down and brings across how decades of experience has not closed the distance between him and Ruben’s fears.
It’s frankly tormenting to be unable to go into detail about how Ruben’s journey unfolds without giving away spoilers. It’s a tremendous story that moves with such grace that every minor inflection resonates. The flurry of gut punches is ferocious, all absorbed into Riz Ahmed’s jaw-dropping portrayal. Yet the film springs with hope too, coming together to eloquently detail a man’s rebirth. Contrary to the mechanical rigidity the film’s title might suggest, Sound of Metal bristles with humanity and fragility.
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