The fear of losing your hearing will be instilled in all of us. For some of us though, like Ruben (Riz Ahmed) here, it’s an integral part of our livelihood. Ruben is the drummer of a duo punk-metal band named Blackgammon, with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) being the lead singer and only other member.
The pair live in their campervan which they use to travel to one venue after the next, as they play their ear piercingly heavy music all across country. All seems routine for the pair until Ruben awakes to the stark sound of almost nothingness and is told his hearing is going to rapidly deteriorate as a result of a lot of wear and tare. We see this couple have lived very rugged lifestyles. Heroin addiction, self harm and years worth of being exposed to amplified noise. What could be a chance for Ruben to come to terms with his new way of life is through solitude. Something he clearly isn’t all that familiar with. Joining a deaf community and learning how to grow with his new impairment, is perhaps his best chance of dealing with it.
It seems impossible to kick off a review of Sound of Metal without immediately bringing up its strongest asset, Riz Ahmed. From oddball British comedies like Four Lions (2010) to Hollywood thrillers like Nightcrawler (2014), and even getting involved in big franchises such as Star Wars and Marvel by appearing in Rogue One (2016) and Venom (2018) respectively. Watching this actor flourish in his field has been one of my favourite cinematic experiences over the years, and it seems he has finally found a career defining role.
Riz’ Ruben is a grizzly, angsty, mess of a man. He’s caked in tattoos and lives with the scars and bad memories of his troubled past. Playing music in dive bars for peanuts night after night and returning to his campervan where he usually has it parked in some car park or back alley. On first glance Ruben is perhaps not somebody you care to see succeed, but as we follow his story you can’t help but wish him the speediest of recoveries.
Riz’ powerhouse performance is as explosive as its narrative nature. Every time he angrily brings his drumsticks to his kit, it is met with a heavy crash of a snare and cymbal, every frustrating outburst he gives feels raw and meaningful, and every tough decision he’s met with, whether good or bad, seems unfavourable regardless of the outcome.
Riz is given some great material to work with. Screenplay co-written between director Darius Marder and his brother Abraham, and with story credits also being given to Derek Cianfrance (director of The Place beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine), there is a lot of talent lined up here, but neither Riz nor the writing responsibilities over compensate for the other.
Much of Sound of Metal works like clockwork. Beyond its strong acting, directing and writing, is its award deserving sound design and editing. Having already picked up the BAFTA in both of these categories, it comes as no surprise that Sound of Metal will be the frontrunners heading into the Oscars. With awards also in the categories of Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Performance by a Lead Actor, and even Paul Raci has earned himself a nomination in the Support Role category.
Raci’s character Joe isn’t given a huge amount to do beyond propelling the story forward, and helping the lead through his tough journey. But Raci is convincing in his role nevertheless.
Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) fundamentally suffers from the same scenario. Returning to Lou is what keeps Ruben going. They share some tough and more heart felt moments in the beginning of the movie, then disappears for a big portion of its middle act, and this is the act that I struggled with the most.
Most of it fits within what it’s trying to do narratively, but one or two moments for me took me out of the tempo of the film entirely and dragged the experience down a notch. But in regards to what this film achieves at its highest moments, this really isn’t much more that a nit-pick.
Sound of Metal isn’t the first film to use a drummer as its central narrative point. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) touched on similar themes and human conditions. Where I believe Whiplash managed to keep the intensity going from start to finish, Sound of Metal wavers in that aspect a little. Both also dive into character studies as we deeply analyse the lead performers and why they make the decisions they do. What Sound of Metal had that Whiplash did not, was simply the heightened expectations. Being one of my favourite films this century, it was always going to be tough to not draw comparisons. Especially if there was to be some similarities.
Fortunately Marder’s Sound of Metal is very much its own piece and deserves to be treated as such. A gripping drama that has an awful lot of heart and compassion. Riz Ahmed is the key player, but he has some strong backup with Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci. It’s not hard to understand why Sound of Metal has been given a lot of awards buzz, as all across the board this film has succeeded. If this film is a drum solo, it would powerful, loud and intense. Even after its finished, you’ll be wanting an encore.