Directed by: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Where seemingly every fictional drama contending for awards these days tries so hard to blur the line between cinematic conventions and documentary like feel, Sound of Metal still feels real through its raw performances and a wellwritten script which understands those conventions, rather than with dialogue and cinematography that attempt to be vérité. The film refreshingly remembers that it’s still a work of fiction in the most traditional sense. Riz Ahmed provides a brilliant performance in last year’s Sound of Metal, which is about a drummer who completely loses his hearing. The movie definitely lives and breathes with the actor’s every move, but what’s most impressive is how accomplished it is otherwise.
We open up with the tattooed Ruben (Ahmed) playing drums in his experimental rock band with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), wailing away on vocals. It’s just the two of them in front of a relatively small audience, but we can tell that Ruben is committed and in the zone, like this his entire world is right there on that tiny stage.
A few nights later, he hears a pop in his ear followed by silence. The doctor runs some tests and informs him that his condition will not only be permanent, but will only get worse. He also tells Ruben that he can have surgery to get cochlear implants, but that it will be expensive. In Ruben and Lou’s current living condition—their RV—that’s not quite an option right now, but the drummer is determined.
Lou fears that Ruben’s recent deafness will make him spiral back into his heroin addiction, so she finds a home for deaf addicts. Ruben, stubborn and somewhat in denial, refuses at first. The home is run by an older gentleman, Joe (Paul Raci), who shows Ruben tough love and informs him that he would have to live there without Lou. But Lou, who knows that this is his only option and sees how destructive he is without guidance, threatens him so that he’ll join. And because the home doesn’t allow outside contact, the two of them go their separate ways.
Director Darius Marder wisely refrains from using subtitles when Ruben first gets immersed into the deaf community. Those of us who don’t understand ASL feel the character’s solitude as he struggles to communicate with the people around the same time, this allows us to really feel our protagonist’s transformation from isolated to part of a community. In an unexpected turn, Marder works some magic and winds up making the audience feel inspired rather than depressed with Ruben’s reality. He succeeds at depicting deafness as something of a new opportunity rather than the end of life, a viewpoint that admittedly benefits from Ruben’s simple lifestyle to begin with.
A lesser director would have leaned into the very obvious melodrama, but ours finds the inspiration within the plot’s organic arc and lets it surface naturally. Writing a film is often not about finding an unexpected conclusion, but in figuring out the unpredictable journey of getting there. Ruben’s journey follows a logical series of events, but his v latility always plays a factor in keeping us surprised with his actions, and we understand the character well enough to know that they’re never out of the realm of possibility for him. The spontaneity often comes from Ruben himself. He’s an odd character, narrow-minded and almost ignorant in his own worldview, disregarding the blatant signs around him for the sake of his own perceived agenda.
Likewise, the succinct script underneath him makes sure that wherever we go, we’re never distanced from our protagonist, yet wisely kept a step or two behind his own thought process. Marder, who also co-writes the film with his brother Abraham, doesn’t feel the need to delve into every corner of this specific circumstance because, frankly, Ruben’s biggest concern is his music and his girlfriend, and that’s enough for us as well. Marder almost doesn’t begin developing Ruben’s character his moods, his tendencies, his temperament, his resolve until after the onset of his problem, which occurs within the first 10 minutes. Prior to that, the director spends his time building the world around Ruben and his dedication to it.
Marder sprinkles subliminal foreshadowing within the brief first act, such as the enjoyable conversations Ruben has with Lou during their time on the road driving from city to city, our protagonist stepping outside of his Airstream each morning to greet the day and the noises around him, the sound of the coffee pot and blender as he prepares breakfast, and of course music, which he surrounds himself with at every moment—things that we see Ruben enjoy, even if they’ve become a rote part of his life at this point; things that remain in the back of our minds throughout his struggle later on.
If we’re being honest, Ruben wasn’t necessarily an overwhelmingly happy guy before he went deaf. He was content with the current state of his life—drumming in a successful band, touring with his girlfriend, and recovering from his heroin addiction—but only if the future he had plotted out for himself actually came to fruition. He’s almost certain that it will.
The movie definitely lives and breathes with the actor’s every move, but what’s most impressive is
how accomplished it is otherwise.
Ahmed brings the audience into the story and keeps them engaged, but Sound of Metal is a film with a knockout script that flows like water with seamless storyboarding. It’s difficult to make a plot feel like one giant rolling hill rather than distinctly established scenes, yet Marder does an excellent job ensuring that his movie isn’t a sequence of scenes so much as it is one uniformed and congruous narrative one giant scene, perhaps.
Ahmed easily gives one of the best (if not THE best) performances of last year. The actor is always on the exact same wavelength as Ruben contradicting stubborn despair over his condition and naive optimism about fixing it—and is convincing in both his character’s self-pity about his situation and his determination to get out of it. Here’s a guy who once defined himself as one thing and then, like the snap of his fingers, instantly couldn’t anymore.
And yet the Marder doesn’t harp on the emotional catastrophe that Ruben’s going through, but how Ruben’s outlook evolves into something beautiful; how his purpose becomes clear, even if he still can’t let go of his own deviated plans. In a world where we’re always told to make our own destiny, Sound of Metal is about actually surrendering to fate, and how that’s something that takes actual courage and humbleness. There’s a subtle spirituality at the core of this film that punctuates our protagonist’s journey and refreshingly informs the story that’s being told. And as Ruben makes his way to find comfort in his silence, we, too, are shown the beauty in his struggle.