In filmmaker Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer and one-half of the punk rock duo Blackgammon. The other half is Lou (Olivia Cooke), lead singer, guitarist and Ruben’s girlfriend. The two drive their RV/home from city to city playing small gigs and selling just enough merch to get by. Both were lost and wayward souls but found safety and refuge in each other and the music they make together. And then Ruben lost his hearing.
From its earliest moments “Sound of Metal” brandishes a gritty authenticity in its story, its characters, and even the filmmaking. It all starts with Riz Ahmed and his star-making turn as a recovering heroin addict who has put every bit of himself into traveling across the country with his girlfriend performing gigs and working on a new album. Once the threat of losing it all sets in the richness of Ahmed’s performance really comes out. Anger, bitterness, fear, denial – Ahmed maneuvers through his crumbling character’s emotional cycles with a true and uncompromising fervor. It’s soulful and hard-nosed acting that avoids showiness and other similar trappings.
Ruben’s trouble begins after a show in Missouri when he suddenly loses most of his hearing. Nicolas Becker’s gnarly sound design (easily some of the year’s best￼) conveys Ruben’s condition by putting us in his head, surrounding us with the same disorienting hums and muffled tones.￼ It’s intensely effective and quite harrowing especially when Marder begins contrasting the normal sounds with what Ruben is actually hearing. Ruben is certain he can fix it despite a doctor telling him his hearing loss is not only permanent but will most likely get worse.
Lou has a better grasp on reality and reaches out to Ruben’s sponsor who finds him a rural rehab facility for the deaf. It’s ran by a kind spirit named Joe (Paul Raci) who immediately gets Ruben into group meetings and starts him learning sign language. After some initial hesitation Ruben begins to make connections, especially with a teacher named Diane (Lauren Ridloff) and her students at a local school for the deaf. At the same time everything he’s doing is to get back to old life instead of learning how to live his new one. It’s a key internal conflict and a central focus of the film’s second half.
“Sound of Metal” tells the kind of story that filmmakers have often struggled to get right. That’s because there’s almost an inherent temptation to ramp up the drama rather than trusting the story and the audience. In “Sound of Metal” there is no condescension and no overwrought sentimentality. The film’s proverbial feet are firmly planted in the real world (maybe too much so in some cases) and the movie benefits from Marder’s willingness to keep things grounded and character-focused￼.￼ Same with his choice to cast members of the deaf community. It both adds to the authenticity and fairly represents an often underrepresented group.
Despite being underwritten in places “Sound of Metal” is easily one of the more pleasant surprises of 2020. The film’s tough-minded yet thoughtful story plows some heavy ground and asks challenging questions. How do you put aside everything you’ve ever known and carve out a new identity?￼ At what point do you give up on your dream and face a new reality? Marder gives us lots to ponder and Riz Ahmed embodies it with a performance full of grit and raw emotion. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him and he earns our empathy the very moment the terrifying muffled hum first sets in. “Sound of Metal” is now available on Amazon Prime.
VERDICT – 4 STARS