While having made its initial premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Sound of Metal, the feature length debut from filmmaker Darius Marder, is almost eerily timely for 2020. In a year such as this, stories of isolation and newfound livelihoods are sure to resonate more than ever. As folks all over the world have had to adapt to a new way of living, it’s quite easy to relate to the central plot of a drummer who suddenly goes deaf, causing his way of life to be upended completely. Sound of Metal is not only equal parts shattering and hopeful, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more profound film experience this year.
Riz Ahmed, in a career defining performance, stars as Ruben, a drummer for an experimental noise band made up of him and his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Living gig-to-gig in a mobile home, Ruben suddenly loses his hearing. As Ruben neglects the reality that his hearing will never come back — he relies heavily on the false hope that cochlear implants will restore most of his hearing — and unable to continue doing what he loves, he begrudgingly decides to accept a role in a deaf community, where he’ll have to “learn how to be deaf” as community leader, Joe (a terrific Paul Raci), writes in a message to Ruben.
One of the most impressive lead performances of the past few years, Riz Ahmed evaporates into the character of Ruben. Having turned in solid supporting work over the past decade, it’s a film like this that finally gets to show all of Ahmed’s pure, raw talent. As Ruben must now primarily communicate with his body and emotions, Ahmed is able to capture the physicality seamlessly. It’s a difficult task for any actor having to portray someone rediscovering their identity, but it’s even harder to do so in a film as nuanced and subtle as this. Miraculously, Riz Ahmed makes the task appear effortless. Both Ahmed and co-star Olivia Cooke bring a level of vulnerability to the screen you don’t see that often; many scenes between them feel as authentic as any documentary.
Director Darius Marder, who co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines with Derek Cianfrance, who shares a story credit here, manages to mine the same level of lyrical grace found in Cianfrance’s film, but discovers his own artistic calling as well. Utilizing a quiet, visceral intensity not unlike Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Marder crafts an emotionally charged journey that skillfully avoids mawkish sentimentality. While the direction here may not be exactly “showy”, there’s no denying Marder’s sensitive storytelling is anything less than remarkable.
What helps make Sound of Metal so distinct in its presentation — apart from the lived-in 35mm cinematography from Daniel Bouquet — is it’s unique use of sound. Marder is able to immerse the audience through some of the most inventive sound design of recent memory. Sound, and the lack thereof, is such a crucial asset to the film as we are often placed inside Ruben’s mind and experience his journey from his perspective. The film is always smart of not making the audio choices ever feel gimmicky, serving as an aid to tell the story instead of a crutch.
Sound of Metal marks a notable accomplishment for accessibility in film. With many sequences spoken only through ASL and featuring a supporting cast predominately made up of deaf actors, this will hopefully open the doors for more opportunities in cinema for the deaf community.
Sound of Metal is an extraordinary piece of work. A cinematic achievement that gives a glimpse inside a story not often told, yet still universally relatable. Riz Ahmed’s work is bound to be immortalized in this breathtaking journey that poetically reflects on what we value most in life.