Riz Ahmed makes a strong case for an all but certain Best Actor nomination in this tender film about learning to deal with the loss of his hearing and loss of his dream.
Without ever feeling like a preachy disability drama, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed, whose entire life has been drumming. Ahmed’s Ruben often is found bargaining with experts, trying to find a way forward without dealing with the actual loss of his hearing. The reality that Sound of Metal addresses directly is uncomfortable and messy, but Ahmed’s performance with the Marder brothers’ confident script ensures that this is about Ruben while also addressing some misconceptions about hearing loss.
Riz Ahmed’s Ruben is one half of the metal band Blackgammon, drumming along to his girlfriend Louise’s (Olivia Cooke) singing. Like most metal bands, Blackgammon is more concerned with playing fast and loud than actually creating music that establishes a complex rhythm for audiences to latch on to, but it makes sense later in the film. The two live in an Airstream stuffed with recording equipment that’s never used, making ends meet by setting outrageous prices on merch. When we hear them perform, the sound design is such an assault on the eardrums that I had to take breaks to make it through the performance.
While waiting on a soundcheck, Ruben’s ear pops, and can barely make out the words Louise is saying to him. Nicolas Becker’s sound design here is a character in and of itself. We hear what Ruben hears, complete with constant ringing and muffled voices, getting to the point where Ruben visits an audiologist, who tells him that without a cochlear implant that’s well outside of his budget, his hearing will continue to deteriorate. However, to make this an option, he must stop drumming, which Ruben doesn’t listen to, and Louise cancels the tour once she realizes that Ruben’s lost his hearing.
Louise’s reasoning isn’t just about his hearing loss, however. When they met, Ruben was recovering from addiction. Understanding that his hearing loss could lead to a relapse, Lou calls Ruben’s sponsor and finds a group that will help Ruben through his hearing loss. Once they arrive, the leader Joe (Paul Raci) convinces Lou that for Ruben to cope and find a way forward fully, she has to leave him there and not contact him until he completes his rehab.
Raci’s performance is rooted in his experience, off-screen with his deaf son. His experience lends a sense of realism that I don’t think would be achievable through the use of an ASL-trained actor. Without the need for extra context, the viewer is left with enough subtext from his performance to go and research why Joe is training Ruben to respect the culture he’s inexplicably become part of and not choose the easy way forward.
It is in this section that Riz Ahmed peels back what makes Ruben the perfect protagonist. While he doesn’t want to learn ASL when he first arrives, he slowly learns over the course of dinner conversations. During the day, he literally re-learns everything from elementary school on, bonding with a fellow student with a knack for music. Throughout Ruben’s journey, Darius Marder never chooses the easy route here. Ruben’s found a home…but what about Lou? Will she move on?
That question drives Ruben towards a potentially divisive decision. While I think viewers who have no hearing loss will agree with Ruben’s choice, Marder asks the what if. Sound of Metal highlights the experience of deafness and asks viewers the difficult questions surrounding accepting deafness.
Sound of Metal opens in a limited theatrical release on November 20th and releases on Amazon Prime Video on December 4th.