Sound of Metal marks the first time Riz Ahmed has been gifted a fully-fledged leading role in a movie (City of Tiny Lights is best forgotten), following take-notice supporting turns in the likes of Rogue One, Venom and Nightcrawler. But you’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing him in Darius Marder’s 2020 film, since the typically slight, sweetly-nerdy British actor has transformed into a tatted-up, lean, mean, drumming machine with a shock of bleach-blonde hair. Ahmed looms large behind the kit, with those familiar doe eyes wide, hungry and waiting. Ahmed undertook six months of lessons to play a convincing drummer, but it’s worth noting that he’s also a real-life musician in his own right, too, releasing his debut album, Microscope, in 2011 as Riz MC. Suffice to say, however, the stuff he’s playing here is more of an acquired taste.
Describing the kind of music Blackgammon (great name) makes is difficult. Imagine a black-metal version of The White Stripes and you’re halfway there (anyone who thought the music featured in Lords of Chaos was too soft will be thrilled with Blackgammon’s output). Ahmed’s Ruben accompanies his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), who screams into the mic while thrashing about on the guitar. It’s not entirely clear whether she can play. The duo has built up a cult following and is on the cusp of a nationwide tour, after which they are slated to record an album, when Ruben suddenly and inexplicably begins to lose his hearing. It happens without warning, the sounds of the world suddenly muffling for Ruben and, by extension, the audience. Life as Ruben knows it quickly disintegrates, leaving the musician and recovering drug addict isolated and alone in a manner he never imagined possible.
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Unsurprisingly, Sound of Metal is a masterpiece of sound design. Nicolas Becker, also a composer on the film, starts off with plenty of distinct sounds, from a boiling coffee pot to a whirring blender, each crisply realized, but he really shines when Ruben begins to go deaf. There are tons of “how did they do that?” moments in the movie where Becker wonderfully and, to be frank, frighteningly replicates Ruben’s harrowing experience. The film borders on horror at times, or more accurately Not Quite Horror, such as when the ringing in Ruben’s ears gets louder and louder like the Jaws theme when the shark is approaching. Subtitles are included by default, a purposeful decision on the filmmakers’ behalf to ensure the deaf and hard of hearing can appreciate Sound of Metal too. In several instances, those with hearing difficulties may actually get more out of the movie, for instance when American Sign Language is used without subs (they appear eventually, but notably only when Ruben begins to understand ASL himself — Ahmed, naturally, learned for real too).
The “[sound muted]” descriptor shows up frequently, a clever move that elegantly puts the audience in Ruben’s shoes without Ahmed having to overreach to get the point across. His character is a flawed, difficult man, with the words “please kill me” tattooed across his chest and simply “NO” inked on the back of his hand. Ruben desperately wants a quick fix for his hearing loss, which makes the drummer manic in the same manner he presumably was while addicted to heroin, creating a bizarre parallel. This is a new kind of dependency, one that Ruben similarly believes he can soothe with enough money (the cochlear implants required are not covered by health insurance). Sound of Metal doesn’t signpost that Ruben is an addict right off the bat, but those who have experience with such things will notice the signs, particularly when Lou rings her partner’s sponsor because he had a cigarette. Time spent in a sober living facility exclusively for people with hearing issues forces Ruben to confront these new demons, but it’s not an all-purpose salve for a lifetime of often self-inflicted pain.
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Ruben doesn’t experience the typical redemption narrative. There’s nothing cliché or hokey about his journey. If anything, the one flaw in Sound of Metal is that it could have focused more time on the sober living facility. But Marder, a documentarian making his feature debut, is intent on establishing Ruben’s lack of appreciation for his life. Hearing was something this young man took for granted and, without it, he finds himself increasingly unmoored and fruitlessly attempting to regain control. Early on, Ruben freaks out at home and the moment is mirrored in a subsequent, violent breakdown in the facility. On both occasions, Ahmed’s performance is perfectly pitched, unhinged enough for the audience to believe that Ruben is capable of destroying everything in his path but still controlled by the performer’s grasp of the material. He’s a loose cannon, but Ahmed communicates a kind of soulfulness, too, an innate longing to belong.
As the similarly flighty Lou, Cooke undergoes her own startling transformation with bleached eyebrows and scars dotting her arms from years of self-harm. There’s a sense these two tortured souls found each other in an uncaring world, but they might not necessarily be good for each other in the long run. Although Lou is understandably sidelined for much of the movie, Cooke impresses in a role far meatier and more complex than any she’s played before. It’s an adult role befitting a grown-up actress, worlds away even from Thoroughbreds (her best work to date). Ruben’s relationship with Lou is something he sees as an anchor, but it’s evident from how she watches him struggling to keep his demons at bay that it’s weighing her down more than either of them cares to admit (tellingly, it’s revealed they’ve only been together since Ruben has been sober, queasily tying Lou to that journey).
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Sound of Metal feels like a particular kind of inspirational film, at least at first, but Marder is in no hurry to fix his protagonist. He’s not interested in short-term solutions, as evidenced when the sweet-natured but tough-as-nails Joe (a soulful Paul Raci) softly tells Ruben nothing needs to be fixed in their shared home. Ruben is someone who’s used to hurtling towards the next thing, constantly looking forward, and when he’s forced to sit still and contemplate his life, he crumbles. Frustrated with what he sees as bad luck, Ruben smashes a donut to pieces, smushes it back together, and then destroys it again in the closest thing the film has to an easy metaphor. Elsewhere, the score is emotive but never cloying, Daniël Bouquet’s cinematography is clear-eyed and sharply defined. Marder has a terrific eye for landscape, whether it’s showing Ruben and Lou’s home in a dirty motel parking lot or the gorgeously green land surrounding Joe’s facility.
Ahmed is an executive producer on Sound of Metal, so it’s clearly very close to his heart, which is also indicated by the extensive preparation he did for the role. Sometimes, when actors put too much work in beforehand, the resulting performance feels awkwardly mannered, an unavoidable casualty of overthinking. Watching Ahmed flourish without words, typically an actor’s lifeline, is a joy. It’s a massive challenge, and he rises to it with aplomb in Sound of Metal. Ahmed’s performance is staggering, with most of the work done through those familiar doe eyes, equally full of heart and hurt. If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll be in the awards conversation come April (if the Oscars are even a thing anymore, that is). Deaf and hard of hearing actors were included in the cast to give the story authenticity, and it’s testament to Ahmed’s abilities that there isn’t one moment of showboating to take away from the central message about tolerance and acceptance of life’s supposed setbacks. When experiencing Sound of Metal, it becomes increasingly clear just how important those moments of stillness really are.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.