▶︎ Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime (and expected in UK cinemas 17 May)
The elevator pitch of Darius Marder’s debut film has the ring of a joke set-up: did you hear about the metal drummer who went deaf? It doesn’t help that the target of the joke is the butt of so many rock stories.
But Hollywood has been reassessing drummers. Rather than Animal from the Muppets or Spinal Tap’s exploding rhythm section, we now get Christian Bale bashing his kit in The Big Short (2015) and the percussive angst of Whiplash (2014). The drummer has become a figure of serious intensity. Sound of Metal continues the trend: a deeply moving portrait of a man in freefall, the film is no joke.
We first meet Ruben (Riz Ahmed) in his domain, a sweaty rock club where, bare torsoed and inked up, he pounds the skins while girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) provides guitar and vocals. Despite the rock ’n’ roll, theirs is a disciplined set up. Ruben rises early, prepares a healthy vegan breakfast. The RV that serves as their tour bus and home is neatly organised. If anything, everything feels too tightly tied in place. Later, we’ll learn that Ruben (and possibly Lou too) is a recovering addict and fills days with constant activity, partly to ward off empty moments when temptation might become too much.
Ruben’s hearing loss is sudden and catastrophic. The sound drops out of the movie and voices become muffled as Ruben struggles to grasp what is happening to him. His music, his sobriety and his life with Lou are on the line. Ruben isn’t just losing his hearing, he’s losing his purpose in life, his identity.
This could be seen as an issues film. It has a definite thesis – being deaf is not a disability but a lived experience – and pursues it sincerely. This is made most explicit by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic who runs the facility for recovering deaf addicts where Ruben seeks refuge. Joe’s rules are strict: no phones, no Lou. Ruben, Joe tells him, must learn to be deaf.
But Marder is deft at avoiding cliché and there are intricacies above and beyond the obvious didactic message. We might appreciate Joe’s fervour while also seeing his bucolic retreat as just that, a retreat: a self-contained but narrowly enclosed world.
The film is technically accomplished on almost every level. The sound design is an obvious factor, drawing our attention to sound and silence and the many different colours they come in (the whole film has closed captions). Daniël Bouquet’s cinematography asserts a heightened watchfulness, alert to visual information now that sound is unavailable to the protagonist. And the cast all flesh out characters that feel like people whose lives are broader than the film can contain. Olivia Cooke’s Lou has her own torments, including a complex bond with her French father, played by the reliably compelling Mathieu Amalric. That relationship feels rich enough for a film all its own.
Riz Ahmed plays Ruben as a man as tightly stretched as the skin of his snare drum.
But the standout element is Riz Ahmed’s magnificent performance. He plays Ruben as a man as tightly stretched as the skin of his snare drum. A glare lurks in his stare, and his can-do attitude hints at a desperation to block out his demons. His deafness sends him through a range of emotions, akin to the stages of grief.
It alternately infuriates him or imbues him with a childlike insecurity or – in a remarkable scene where he takes his frustrations out on a doughnut – both at the same time. His journey is ultimately one of self-discovery, moving from his co-dependency with Lou to something different – more mature and hopefully happier.
Ahmed’s performances here and in last year’s Mogul Mowgli – another story about a musician stricken by disease – add to an already impressive filmography, which boasts performances as diverse as his comic terrorist in Four Lions (2010) and the murder suspect in the HBO series The Night of (2016). With this latest outing, he cements his status as one of the most exciting British actors currently working.
Sound of Metal explores the moment the music stops
By Beatrice Loayza
Riz Ahmed: “I want to be the change”
By Kaleem Aftab
Mogul Mowgli confronts Riz Ahmed’s rapper’s battle of the soul
By Kambole Campbell
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy