Bruising in its delivery and blistering in its fall out, Sound of Metal is an astonishing, fully visceral experience anchored entirely by a tremendous performance from Riz Ahmed. Sound of Metal tells the story of a heavy metal drummer, Ruben (Ahmed), who plays in a band with his girlfriend/lifeline, Lou (Olivia Cooke), as he begins to experience rapid hearing loss.
Rich in its storytelling and filled with characters whose lives we instantly care about, the film asks us to see beyond what we think we know of people and their struggles. But its best aspect is the character study that lies at its center, its story of a young man hurtling himself through tremendous grief while trying to keep his greater demons at bay.
For everything that works about the film (which is plenty), nothing can be said before mentioning Ahmed’s soulful, enraged, and career watermark performance. His is a masterclass in physicality, moving with the forcefully snappy motions of a boxer. He’s quick to lash out and easy to provoke but only once he’s been cornered. His face is expressive as he’s always constraining some part of himself—whether bargaining like an addict or trying to fool himself into a life-changing decision that even he knows is risky. No matter the lies the character tells himself or others, Ahmed makes sure that Ruben’s true feelings, his true motives, are expressed through his eyes. It’s compelling and layered work, and while fans have gotten a taste of his abilities throughout the years, be it in his work in Nightcrawler or HBO’s The Night Of, it’s in Sound of Metal where we truly get an idea of just how much he is capable of and how much he still has yet to show us.
If there’s a shortcoming to the film, it comes in the form of Lou. Cooke is a fine actress when offered the right role, but here the character and her performance don’t match, especially when compared against Ahmed’s more live wire, hyper kinetic approach. It doesn’t help that the writing for Lou is lacking, given a fraction of the full engagement that Ahmed’s character has. Too often Lou’s decisions makes us wonder why, leaving us to question the motives of one of the few main characters in the film. Cooke and Ahmed share a strong chemistry though, which allows the lesser moments of Lou’s character to find balance, even when the film is clearly less interested in her story.
Directed by Darius Marder, he, along with compact cinematography that stays close to Ruben’s shoulders and precise editing, delivers a movie that’s intensely claustrophobic. Prior to his hearing loss, we meet Ruben in the trailer where he lives, with its low ceilings packed to the brim and spilling over with music and sound as he makes his daily green smoothie and slow dances in momentary bliss. Before that even, we see him on stage as his band member wails and growls into a mic while he lets loose on the drums. In each instance, we get the sense that neither place—both of which he calls home—are able to contain him. It’s brilliant work that builds tension without being obvious because it demonstrates the limitations and constraints that are already weighing him down.
His loss of hearing, which is abrupt and rapid, is devastating but not debilitating, an idea that the film strives to drive home and does so with cleareyed empathy. It isn’t his inability to hear the world around him that pulls him under, but his jittery inability to stay in the moment; it’s his weariness for mindfulness that is so often placed as the main hurdle to Ruben’s healing. So many films about people living with a disability are marred by the writer’s ignorance when they treat it like a death sentence or as a lesser way of living. Sound of Metal overcomes expectations by fighting against those very notions and going even one step further by suggesting that life might not worsen for Ruben once he’s lost his hearing. There’s a chance he may have a greater ability to heal old wounds because of it.
Not to say that the film is sanctimonious in how it delivers this message. We still watch as Ruben struggles with his new version of daily life, be it learning sign language, finding ways to find music again, or confronting new challenges to his life of sobriety when his one true coping outlet is taken from his life for good.
Written by Darius and Abraham Marder, the film’s best, most poignant sequences take place in the deaf community where Rubin goes to stay under the guidance of Joe (Paul Raci), the leader of the found family. The moments of anguish, contemplation and wonder between Raci and Ahmed are when the film hits its highest peaks amid the mountains of them. It’s in these moments where the film’s thesis about identity, loss, and learning to see and experience life in new, uninhibited ways is at its most pronounced, and because of that, the scenes ring all the more devastating and enlightening.
Ruben is deaf, an addict, and a heavy metal musician. He is all of that and more, and, as the film suggests, he just needs a moment to relearn who he is, who he wants to be and how he will go about achieving that. The film, in its most masterful move, gives the character and us the space and trust to learn that on our own time.
Beautifully produced and directed with an abundance of clarity, Sound of Metal is made to make us care by design—its trick is in how it pulls us along to experience all of the ups and downs with our leading man, wringing us all out by the film’s end.
This is a reprint from the 2020 AFI Film Festival