Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Screenplay: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
130 mins. Rated R.
Sound of Metal has had a long road on the way to being completed. Initially Derek Cianfrance had been working on a film called Metalhead, described as a docufiction, which has languished in post-production since 2009. That film will likely not see the light of day anytime soon, so one of the writers of that film, Darius Marder (Loot), has instead stepped into the director’s chair with a complete reworking of that film’s story from the ground up, crafting a new movie from the bones of Metalhead, with Cianfrance’s blessing. There was also a previous attempt at making this film in 2015 with a completely different cast, and now, after premiering in the film festival circuit last year, Sound of Metal is finally dropping on Amazon Prime in December. It’s been a long road, so is the movie any good?
The film stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Weathering With You) as Ruben, a drummer touring the nation with girlfriend and band mate Lou (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One, Life Itself). Through several nightly concerts, Ruben begins experiencing sudden spurts of hearing loss. Ruben also learns that the cost of implants to save some of his hearing is going to run tens of thousands of dollars, money he doesn’t have. The stress of losing his most important sense has Ruben contemplating drug use again, so his sponsor sets him up at a rehab clinic for the deaf, where he begins a journey of discovery in a world without sound.
Sound of Metal is a character piece, through and through, and it doesn’t work if its central character doesn’t work. After many notable supporting roles, Riz Ahmed kills it as Ruben. There are a lot of emotional beats in this performance, from Ruben’s anxiety and stress to his emotional loneliness while at the rehab home, and in his frustrations in trying to communicate in a world without sound. Not to mention Ruben’s contemplation over drug use after years of being clean. There’s a lot happening in Ruben’s head, and then taking away the character’s ability to hear and interpret conversation in the way he is used to needs to come across realistically. Ahmed is able to handle all of these factors in a performance that is equal parts bombastic and subtle, creating a well-rounded character that isn’t always likable but always captivating.
The rest of the supporting cast is quite strong as well, most of it made up of a largely deaf group of actors. They add layers of realism to the world and help to elevate Ahmed’s performance. I was quite fond of Olivia Cooke’s work as Lou. She disappeared into the role so seamlessly that I didn’t even realize it was her, thanks to a strong level of makeup and costuming with her character. Then there’s Paul Raci (No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie, She Wants Me) as Joe. I don’t think I’ve seen Paul Raci in a performance before, but he was wholly captivating, and his chemistry with Ahmed was incredibly strong. Their scenes ranged from emotional to heated and sometimes both at the same time, and I was taken in by it all. All of these players just added to the sense of realism at play here.
Marder’s film does not try to dazzle with unique cinematography, it isn’t showy in its execution, but where it does stand out, from a technical perspective, is in its exemplary sound design. The way in which the sound is given to us as viewers and then taken away to put us in Ruben’s headspace is some truly powerful work in forcing us to confront the problems he is encountering with him. This element, combined with the choice not to utilize subtitles for the ASL scenes until Ruben begins to understand them help to put us in the character’s shoes in a way that left me in awe.
Sound of Metal is a hard watch, I’m not aching to see it again, but Darius Marder’s film really drives home life’s way of surprising us. It’s a story about coming to terms with unpredictability on our individual journeys, and for me, it broke my heart to see Ruben consistently struggle throughout the film. It’s an introspective movie, one that I very much recommend.
-Kyle A. Goethe