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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Sound of Metal

Playing a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed is exceptional in this intensely piercing, probing and empathetic film.
By Sarah Ward
December 09, 2020
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By Sarah Ward
December 09, 2020
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When Sound of Metal begins just as its title intimates, it does so with the banging and clashing of drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, Venom) as his arms flail above his chosen instrument. He's playing a gig with his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One), and he's caught up in the rattling and clattering as her guttural voice and thrashing guitar offers the pitch-perfect accompaniment. But for viewers listening along, it doesn't quite echo the way it should. For the bleached-blonde, tattooed, shirtless and sweaty Ruben, that's the case, too. Sound of Metal's expert and exacting sound design mimics his experience, as his hearing fades rapidly and traumatically over the course of a few short days — a scenario that no one wants, let alone a musician with more that a few magazine covers to his band's name, who motors between shows in the cosy Airstream he lives in with his other half and is about to embark upon a new tour.

'Heavy metal drummer loses his hearing' is the six-word way to sum up Sound of Metal, but that's not all the film is about. Ruben's ability to listen to the world around him begins to dip out quickly and early — a scene where he's driving is methodically crafted to convey to the audience just how out of the blue and jarring it is — leaving him struggling to cope. It's how he grapples with the abrupt change, and with being forced to sit with his own company without a constant onslaught of aural interruptions distracting him from his thoughts, that the movie is most interested in, however. Ruben feels a sense of loss and also feels lost. As the awards-worthy soundscape makes plain, he feels both cast adrift and assaulted. With apologies to cinema's blockbusters (which usually monopolise the sound categories come Oscars time), no other feature this year mixes its acoustics together in as stunning and stirring a fashion, and also bakes every single noise heard into its script, and its protagonist's journey, as well.

Reluctantly, Ruben takes up residence at a rural community for addicts who are deaf; he's four years clean himself, but the turn of events has Lou worried. While he's in the care of the soulful Joe (Paul Raci, Baskets), an ex-soldier and ex-alcoholic with kindness seeping from his pores, Ruben must move in alone — farewelling the love of his life and their shiny caravan. Again, he's unmoored, even as he's welcomed in by other residents and the children at the school where he's taught sign language. Although Joe stresses that deafness isn't something that needs to be fixed, Ruben is obsessed with rustling up the cash for a surgically inserted cochlear implant. The movie's most telling sequence, though, comes when Joe notices that Ruben literally can't sit still or stand his own company, and tasks him with spending his days in a quiet room unburdening his angst onto a piece of paper. On the first go, he's so distraught and so desperate to escape his brain that he smashes a doughnut as if he was beating a snare in an intense solo.

'Intense' is the word for Sound of Metal, and for its decision to express Ruben's distress as immersively as possible. It's also a term that doesn't completely do the movie justice. Making his feature directing debut, and co-writing another screenplay with filmmaker Derek Cianfrance as he did with 2012's The Place Beyond the Pines, Darius Marder turns his picture into a masterful exploration and skilled evocation of the kind of anxiety that's drummed deep into a person's darkest recesses. Viewers don't just hear what Ruben hears, but also feel what he feels as he rages and rallies against a twist of fate that he so vehemently doesn't want yet has to live with. While the film specifically depicts hearing loss, it's so detailed and empathetic in conveying Ruben's shock, denial, anger and hard-fought process of adjustment that it also proves an astute rendering of illness and impairment in general.

That's Ahmed's recent niche; in two consecutive roles in just the past year, the always-excellent actor has played musicians who are blindsided by their health and the impact of a sudden affliction on their future. This year's Berlinale-premiering Mogul Mowgli, where he steps into the shoes of a British Pakistani rapper with an autoimmune condition, doesn't just pair perfectly with Sound of Metal. Together, the two movies demonstrate how committed Ahmed is to telling such tales in a piercing, probing, visceral and lived-in way. Here, he learned to play the drums and American Sign Language. What resonates as persistently as the muffled buzz that replaces Ruben's ability to discern ordinary sounds, though, is how affectingly and attentively his on-edge but also vulnerable portrayal is attuned to the everyday grief that comes with his character's situation. Losing a part of yourself, whether it's an actual sense or the sense that you'll always be healthy, is dispiritingly tough. Accepting and making the most of that scenario is just as difficult. Being deaf shouldn't be considered a state that needs to be cured, as Joe rightly espouses, so Ahmed's powerfully physicalised performance shows the fight and fortitude it takes to get to that place mentally and emotionally.

From the exceptional work of supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker (Suspiria, American Honey, Gravity) to the urgent, in-the-moment cinematography favoured by Daniël Bouquet (Elektro Mathematrix), every choice made under the talented Marder's guidance has the same outcome as well. Indeed, when Sound of Metal ends — not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a quiet yet potent moment — it has taken its audience deep into Ruben's journey, made those on- and off-screen confront both specific and existential anxiety, and rousingly, movingly and sensitively challenged traditional depictions of and attitudes towards disability in the process.

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