Riz Ahmed has been targeting thought-provoking roles and narratives for a while now. From Four Lions to Nightcrawler, plus The Night of and Rogue One, he’s pushing himself as an actor and it was last year’s Mogul Mowgli that he stepped up again, telling the tale of a British Pakistani rapper on the brink of a bigger career, before an illness strikes him down. While Sound of Metal is also about a talented musician, and his struggle with a major debilitating change in his life, it’s a vastly different body of work.
While Mogul Mowgli explored the nature of culture and opened a world I’d never seen before, Sound of Metal is Ahmed on a new level and it’s not that he hasn’t embraced previous roles to their fullest, but this portrayal of a character trying to re-build his life is utterly compelling. Originally screening the festivals in 2019, and the States in 2020, it suffered from pandemic delays but the fact it’s finally on Prime Video for the UK masses is fantastic.
Sound of Metal follows Ruben (Ahmed), a drummer in the two-piece alt-metal band Blackgammon, in which he shares songs and the stage with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke – who offers an insightful truth to her character). Opening with them in full flow at a gig, they belt the song out and you feel the full force of their power and, best of all, we’re watching Ahmed playing for real on drums, with Cooke giving it her all as lead guitarist and singer. After this, we join them in their RV ‘home’, driving across the States, having everyday chats and enjoying the open road and creative life. They’re happy.
But… it’s not long before Ruben shows signs of a problem with his hearing. We literally take on what he’s hearing, with a very smart use of sound choice because we’re hearing what Ruben is hearing or, in this case, what he isn’t. Anyone with hearing issues, or isn’t already deaf, will know of that muffled-like situation, something close to having water in your ear after being at the swimming pool, except this time it’s not going away. In fairness to him, he goes to find a specialist but the news isn’t positive at all, but he doesn’t tell his girlfriend, so while he’s nearly dealing with the challenge, he’s not completely committed to the reality.
So, while Ruben pretends to carry on, it’s not long before Lou finds out because at their next gig his timing is off, and he admits to not being able to hear. There’s also a deeper level at play since Lou and Ruben aren’t just together, and in a band, they’re supporting each other as recovering addicts. But Lou steps up first after the news, finds Ruben a deaf community to help him on his new journey and purposefully leaves him to take on the challenge, and it’s one of those moments where she’s doing it for him, because he must do it alone, but also utterly heart-breaking as they literally must leave each other to move independently forward.
At the Deaf Community Complex, Ahmed’s Ruben meets Joe (exceptionally portrayed by Paul Raci), a leader in a camp of deaf people from all backgrounds and ages, where people help each other in an environment away from the usual. It’s got that retreat feeling but it’s the best place for Ruben, as he must learn sign language, endeavour to accept his deafness and re-evaluate everything in his life to this moment. It’s here where Ahmed shines even more, fully representing the character, his struggles and personal demons to their absolute edge.
Directed by Darius Marder, in a screenplay co-written with Abraham Marder (and the story from Darius and The Place Beyond the Pines’ Derek Cianfrance, no less), Sound of Metal’s gritty, understandable realism is everywhere, and it’s very welcome. The characters are deep and intricate but it’s never pretentious, you feel the complexity of every situation, Paul Raci’s Joe brings a strength and focus to Ruben but not straight away, it’s something he’s going to have to find for himself.
As Ahmed says in an interview with ID about his character, it’s what Ruben learns along the way which is the most fascinating, rewarding experience. Ahmed said that “the challenges can be the gifts. If you can’t even control your own body, then maybe everything is a gift. We don’t control shit, and we’re not entitled to anything. We’re out of control. I think that Ruben starts to glimpse some of that perspective as the film progresses”.
Everyone involved with Sound of Metal puts their soul into the film. It’s original, challenging, free from cliché and with it brutally, beautifully smart storytelling.