Sound of Metal, 2019.
Directed by Darius Marder.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff and Mathieu Amalric.
A heavy metal drummer must learn how to adjust to a completely different life when he begins to suffer serious loss of hearing.
It’s always a bit weird to review hotly-tipped Oscar contenders as a UK-based film critic. 99 times out of 100, you’ll be seeing the movie months after everybody else and long after a consensus has built – not just around its quality, but also about the likelihood of it actually winning the various awards for which it is competing. That’s certainly the case with Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, which had its world premiere all the way back in September 2019 at the Toronto Film Festival. After COVID-19 scuppered its release, it’s now arriving in the UK – via Amazon Prime video from 12th April and in hopefully reopened cinemas from 17th May – months after its Stateside bow last year and with a hatful of Oscar nominations.
With all of that in mind, the film comes with a lot of baggage in terms of acclaim. Ultimately, as impressive as it is, the movie can’t help but wilt a little under the weight of its own hype. That’s not the movie’s fault at all, but it’s interesting to note how often that fate befalls major awards season contenders, which invariably arrive on the crest of a wave they can seldom live up to.
Riz Ahmed, though, delivers one of his best performances to date, serving as something of a companion piece to the strange, surreal Mogul Mowgli from last year. While that movie featured Ahmed as a rapper suffering from a muscle-wasting disease, this time around he’s heavy metal drummer Ruben, who becomes afflicted by sudden and catastrophic hearing loss. This puts a strain on his professional and personal relationship with bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Worried about him potentially relapsing into his prior drug addiction, Lou encourages Ruben to spend time at a rural retreat for deaf recovering addicts run by Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci).
With Ahmed’s performance at its centre – a barely-constrained ball of frustration and desperation – Sound of Metal unfolds as a languid, thoughtful drama. The sweaty cacophony of Ruben and Lou’s music is mostly confined to early scenes, with Marder’s movie taking on a much quieter register to convey the absence of sound in the character’s new life. The film eloquently walks the dividing line between silence and stillness, depicting the slippery absence of the latter concept for Ruben, despite the prominent abundance of the former. No matter how real his situation becomes, he’s never able to make peace with a world emptied of its aural furniture.
Notably, the film’s approach to sound itself is deeply innovative, skittering from the familiar soundscape of a hearing person to the fluctuating and stark weirdness of Ruben’s experience – often within the same scene. In a potent early moment, we see Ahmed’s eyes fill with a terrifying, quiet panic as he visibly struggles to grasp the depth of his predicament while trying to bluff his way through a hearing test. Ahmed never over-plays the role and, particularly in his scenes with the quietly simmering Raci, there’s something deeply relatable about his refusal to accept what’s happening to him.
But the movie wobbles in its middle section, with Ruben’s time at the retreat failing to hit as hard as the chemistry between Ahmed and Olivia Cooke in the first act and the emotional barrage of the final half-hour. Scenes in which Ruben bonds with a class of deaf youngsters while learning sign language from teacher Diane (Lauren Ridloff) are sweet – especially when he attempts to teach them to drum – but stretch on for far too long. It’s nice to spend time around Ahmed’s performance, but the movie often shows a resistance to push the plot forward that eventually becomes tiresome.
Fortunately, none of that overwhelms the quietly throbbing heartbeat at the centre of the movie. The final act’s quietly played emotional turmoil – in which Cooke really gets to spread her wings – is a triumph, building to an elegant and heart-warming finale.
Sound of Metal is ultimately about a man who, like so many of us, refuses to engage with his health issues until it’s too late and, even then, is convinced there has to be a way out. Marder’s story is one of a man working through the stages of grief entirely internally, having been separated from all of the pillars of his prior existence. Ahmed is exceptional, and the experimental sound design brilliantly modulated, but the movie spends a little too long trudging to ever break into an all-out emotional sprint.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.