Film Review: “Sound of Metal”
Riz Ahmed captivates as a heavy metal drummer who goes inexplicably and profoundly deaf, seemingly overnight. A raw observation of a life in transition.
Riz Ahmed is a Pakistani British actor, musician, and activist who can twist himself into virtually any role, seamlessly. Whether you know him by name, you definitely know his work, in films such as Star Wars: Rogue One; Nightcrawler; Four Lions; the Bourne franchise; and 2018’s Venom. In his newest incarnation, Ahmed plays heavy-metal drummer Ruben Stone, a recovering addict living a nomadic existence with his musical and life partner Lou (played by Olivia Cooke). The couple scrapes by, living in their camper and crisscrossing the country, playing small gigs in seedy venues. Until the unthinkable happens.
You may want to turn the volume down for the first several minutes of Sound of Metal unless you’re a devotee of the assault to the senses that true Heavy Metal often is. But more than shock value, this acoustic barrage quickly and effectively puts Ruben’s utter existence into precise perspective in terms of grasping the probable source and extent of his sudden onset deafness. From confusion and shock to abject fury and terror, we have a front-row seat into Ruben’s inner psyche — insofar as a film is capable of revealing — without resorting to arch voiceovers or over-explanatory dialogue. This stuff feels real. It feels raw. And on many occasions, we hear what Ruben hears, sometimes badly, sometimes not at all. Almost on the level of documentary, underscored moreover by the generous casting of deaf non-actors throughout the movie.
Ruben finds himself at a rural home for deaf people, run by a Vietnam vet named Joe (soulfully portrayed by Paul Raci) who lost his hearing in the war. Joe’s got very strict rules about no family/loved ones living on the premises, as well as complete abstinence of smartphones and the internet, which don’t square with Ruben’s nature. And without Lou by his side, Ruben is adrift in a world not only completely foreign to him but one in which he wants no part. Because Ruben is intent on ‘getting his life back’ by virtue of an expensive cochlear implant surgery not covered by insurance and for which he has only a distant chance of obtaining. It’s this figurative life raft to which Ruben clings that not only gives him some measure of hope, but conversely keeps him from accepting his new reality and grabbing the very real life raft of education and community which Joe’s home offers.
Will Ruben have the surgery, and if so, will it prove successful? And to a newly, profoundly deaf person such as Ruben, what does that success really mean? How does he begin to re-invent himself without the full primary sense around which so much of his previous world and identity revolved?
Sound of Metal is a labor of love over 10 years in the making for first-time writer/director Darius Marder. The story of the inception and multiple iterations and backings of this film reads like an odyssey. The film has won several prestigious awards already and is currently a shoo-in for Oscar contention in sound and other categories. Indeed, Riz Ahmed was already nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe. More accolades and prizes are sure to be on the horizon.
The nugget of gold in this otherwise small-scale picture is the enormous weight it carries in terms of Authenticity. At times the film seems to move at a snail’s pace, and at other times you’re left wondering where the time went. . . which is so like Life itself. The themes of authenticity and acceptance are huge in this picture, too. Nothing is sugar-coated. We understand the politics of the deaf world and its sensitivity around miracle ‘cures’ such as cochlear implants, with its implication that a deaf existence is essentially inferior. And yet, we root for Ruben to get rid of his ‘problem’, hoping against hope that the surgery will ‘fix him’. By the moving final scene of the picture, we look deeply into the translucent eyes of Riz Ahmed, who has basically expressed Ruben’s entire soul through those dark pools, and we wonder if he has found the Stillness which we hope, for him will translate to Grace.
Sound of Metal is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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