Riz Ahmed should be atop many potential cast-lists after tour-de-force performance in Sound of Metal

By: Steve Pulaski

Playing catch-up on some Oscar-nominated films in time for the Academy Awards on April 25th.

Within the first few minutes of Sound of Metal, we are immediately plunged into the life of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a heavy metal band, who performs alongside his lead-singer/girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). In a matter of moments into their set, we hear what Ruben hears, which is faint white noise. The drums aren’t sounding like they used to, and what little sound he picks up is muffled. A doctor’s visit leads him to the realization that he’s lost more than 75% of his hearing with the rest likely to go soon. Ruben plays it cool. He can play through it. He can look into treatment options, maybe even surgery. Onto the next gig.

Lou, on the other hand, knows there’s another problem. Ruben is a recovering heroin addict, clean for four years. Trauma like this can prompt a relapse, and neither one of them can afford that. But Ruben’s overarching issue is his source of therapy has been cruelly robbed from him practically overnight. With all that weighing on her mind, Lou takes Ruben to a facility run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing in combat. His center isn’t one to correct deafness, but to teach folks old and young how to live with it. Thus begins Ruben’s journey of becoming one with his condition. He becomes an observer of the community, and soon an active participant. He learns ASL, he watches deaf kids learn in a classroom, and he takes advice from the wise old soul that is Joe.

Ruben’s stubbornness does get the best of him in reasons I won’t explicitly reveal. Just for a second, imagine the torment and self-pity you’d experience if you were — with no warning — robbed of the ability to appreciate what you create within your chosen artform. Ruben is not only beside himself in frustration and anger, but he’s blindly determined to regain his hearing, regardless of the cost. This is where Sound of Metal takes on the identity of a movie about addiction. Ruben seems to be on the knife’s edge of relapsing back into his heroin addiction, but this addiction is different. It’s an addiction to a former life that can never be replicated.

Ruben eventually strives to obtain the necessary funds for implants that could restore some of his hearing. Rather than adapt to a drastic change, he fights to chase the high of his gypsy life. Joe tries to teach him to welcome the stillness of life, even going as far as to urge him to sit isolated in a room and write down his thoughts. Ruben needs to learn to appreciate the silence around him, but his ill-fated determination gets the best of him. This leads to a third act that’s devastatingly sad, but necessary, as it teaches us one of life’s most hardest lessons: there comes a time when you can’t keep dwelling on the past, so you must embrace the changes and adapt.

Riz Ahmed’s performance is predicated on the art of restraint. Ahmed portrays a man on the brink of self-destruction. We fear Ruben’s a cigarette or a failed sign language session away from returning to old habits. Magnificently, Ahmed avoids the trappings of this performance. His facial expressions and mannerisms are a model of emotional ambiguity as opposed to theatricality. He’s consistently measured, even when he needs to break down in tears for a few minutes — like we all need sometimes. He should also be a hot commodity after this awards season.

Ahmed buried himself in research for the role of Ruben and it shows. He went to great lengths to learn how to play drums in less than a year. He spent two hours a day learning ASL. He studied how to be deaf. With that commitment, not a single beat of his performance feels false. Like the film, it feels lived-in. Darius Marder and his brother, Abraham (Derek Cianfrance, director of The Place Beyond the Pines, has a story credit as well) masterfully craft a story that is apropos to Ruben.

This is where the sound design comes into play. It might as well be a character in itself. Throughout much of the film, we hear what Ruben hears. We’re trapped in his psyche, hearing the piercing hiss of unfiltered noise, the garbled speech of others, or at times, nothing at all. It’s a bold creative choice to provide subtitles for the spoken dialog in the film while not doing the same for the ASL conversations. It’s a testament to the alienation Ruben feels.

A movie like Sound of Metal exposes other movies of its genre, most recently Hillbilly Elegy. Ron Howard’s adaptation of the bestseller that became a window into the life of working class individuals broadcasted to the raptors, so to speak. It dialed up the pathos, the orchestration (in turn, dialing up the waterworks), and more-or-less demanded you weep for the characters as they recited desperate, impassioned monologues. Sound of Metal, by comparison, thrives in silence, evident in how it focuses on Ahmed’s eyes or conversations inhibited by his inability to communicate easily. It’s a film that marches to the rhythms of body language, not manipulation by way of score and beautiful photography.

NOTE: Sound of Metal is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Excitingly too, it will be released on The Criterion Collection come 2022.

Grade: A+

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFOrGkAvjAE [/embedyt]