‘Sound of Metal’ resonates with Ahmed’s Oscar-worthy performance

“Sound of Metal” – Director/writer Darius Marder’s feature film debut lands like a gut punch, a barrage of them.  One particular body blow confronts us very early in the first act, and for the remainder of the emotional, 15-round/two-hour runtime – led by Riz Ahmed’s Oscar-worthy performance – the audience tries to recover.

Well, “Sound of Metal” doesn’t feature actual fisticuffs, but Ruben (Ahmed) fights through and for something that he lost.

His hearing.

Marder offers an immediate introduction to Ruben and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) from the film’s get-go.  They are in a two-person band and playing in a crowded, small club, where the audience – standing on a beer-stained concrete floor and just a few feet away from the aforementioned performers – is entranced with a torrent of crashes, booms, and shrieks.

Ruben and Lou are an alt-metal collaboration.  While he pounds the drums like a WW III declaration, Lou screams into her microphone and strums distortions that lead them into a nuclear assault of the senses.  (For the record, Cooke is an utterly unrecognizable Courtney Love-lookalike who initially appears a decade older than her tender 26 years.)  Their performance is just one stop on a nationwide tour of modest venues, and their comfy silver camper is their rock-n-roll-dreams chariot.  They are in love with one another and their music.  Life is grand, even without 401(k)s, a white picket fence, and health insurance.

Well, this pair unexpectedly becomes desperate for a doctor’s advice because Ruben – without warning – goes nearly deaf during the middle of a show.  “Without warning” is not precisely accurate because Ruben’s naked eardrums have faced and battled thunderous, musical uproar for years.  It appears that his hearing has finally given way.   Like a dancer with amputated legs or a marksman deprived of sight, Ruben now feels disoriented without his chief instrument.  He’s momentarily directionless and has to find his way on uncharted roads.

Ahmed miraculously melds into this struggling musician portrayal, both physically and emotionally.  He looks like a triathlon competitor, and tattoos don’t completely cover his body, but he carries his fair share of ink, including a PLEASE KILL ME message dotting his chest.  His bleach-blonde hair doesn’t hide his dark roots, but hey, that gives him street cred.  He’s an impulsive but passionate 30-something musician, and crude language frequents his vocabulary.  Unfortunately, Ruben doesn’t have the skills to cope with such a drastic change, but honestly, who would in that moment?

Ahmed also took some semi-drastic steps to step into this role.  In a Nov. 20 interview (with film critic Jeffrey K. Howard), Ahmed says, “When I met Darius, he said, ‘Everything is going to be for real.  When you’re playing the drums on the screen, you’re going to be playing the drums for real.’”

Ahmed took drums lessons and learned sign language, and he adds that it “took most of a year to learn how to do both of those skills passably well.”

Also, Ahmed wore hearing aids that fed white noise into his ear canals, so he couldn’t hear himself talk.  “It was very disorienting.  I guess I just felt like I wanted to understand just a glimpse – the tiniest, tiniest sliver – of what that feels like to understand the shock that Ruben is going through and many people go through in that situation.”

Ruben’s specific life-passages won’t be revealed in this review, but rest assured, our suffering protagonist needs to face his reality and find acceptance, solace, and value with it.  His new mentor, Joe (Paul Raci), has a Mr. Miyagi quality, but rather than offering lessons of “wax on, wax off” or “paint the fence”, his teachings are more cerebral, and due to Ruben’s new circumstances, considerably more challenging to embrace.

The film also embraces sound as a lead character, as Marder frequently silences or muffles on-screen moments.  Sometimes, we hear from Lou’s or the cameraperson’s perspective, and during other stretches, our ears experience Ruben’s audio outlooks.  These interludes are purposely frustrating, unsettling, and madly successful at engendering deep empathy for Ruben’s new condition.  For moviegoers who have their hearing intact, you might end the film feeling eternally grateful to listen to leaves rustle, prairie grass sway, and birds sing….while also soothing your midsection after an outpouring of cinematic wallops.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic.  Follow Jeff and ArtHouseFilmWire on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @ArtHouseFilmWre, respectively.


Image and Trailer credits: Amazon Prime Video

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