AFI Fest Review: Sound of Metal is an already astonishing film elevated by Riz Ahmed’s uninhibited performance

After his standout turn opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in 2014’s disturbing neo-noir thriller Nightcrawler, Riz Ahmed seemed destined for greatness on the big screen.  And thankfully, after years of slumming it in supporting roles in Hollywood blockbusters that have all wavered in their quality (Jason Bourne, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Venom), he’s finally been handed a starring role that truly allows him to showcase his capabilities as an actor.

Wholly committed, uninhibited, and emotionally charged, Ahmed’s performance in Sound of Metal elevates an already astonishing film to a higher, more perceptive level.  As recovering heroin addict and struggling drummer Ruben, Ahmed achieves a more subtle, believable tortured soul persona than some films detailing addicts tend to be afforded.  He’s been clean for four years, the same amount of time he’s been with Lou (Olivia Cooke), the lead singer of their occasional band, who similarly is recovering from a dark, unspecified past; the scars across her wrists suggesting she still has longer to go in her recovery process.

Ruben and Lou are evidently in love though, living a blissful, if sightly ignorant, existence in their Winnebago as they travel across the country performing.  The opening moments highlight the intensity of their performances, so when Ruben’s environment suddenly goes mute during a thrift store visit, we’re unsurprised but no less devastated. “The hearing you have lost is not coming back” he’s quite heartbreakingly told upon his doctor’s visit, but a costly operation could restore whatever hearing he has left.

The panic that fills Ruben’s psyche is palpable, his nervous energy amplified as he already indicates determination to pay for the operation (“It’s like forty grand, eighty grand, whatever”), leading towards further ill-advised music gigs that eventually chip away at his remaining audible abilities.  The frustration evident in Ruben’s decisions is understandable given his assumption that the operation will restore his world, so when Lou convinces him to spend some time in a treatment centre – a semi-rehab for the deaf community who all have a tumultuous past of some variety – his reluctance is true to form, eventually only agreeing to stay to satisfy her; “You’re my fucking heart” he states, holding back tears, as they part ways.

Whilst an emotional undercurrent runs through Darius Marder‘s narrative, it’s when Ruben accepts his place at the retreat, run by guru-type Joe (Paul Raci, a marvel), that Sound of Metal truly embraces what it is to exist with a disability.  However, it’s only a disability in the mind of Ruben.  Joe’s teachings dictate that everyone at the retreat are merely living a particular lifestyle, not one that happens to be handicapped or impaired.  Ruben having taken his sense of hearing for granted means he’s constantly on the back foot among his counterparts, and though the film shows his gradual acceptance – he learns American Sign Language and works closely with the children in the group – there’s a constant rebellion to his temperament, implying that his acceptance is only momentary.

Though metal music is the genre Ruben indulges in, and the film itself is by far one of the most visceral experiences of the year, Sound of Metal isn’t an assault on the senses, at least not aggressively.  It’s so quietly powerful.  The film constantly takes us into Ruben’s world by blocking out the ambient noises we tend to subconsciously tune out, and it’s when we’re confronted with such deliberate nothingness that the everyday sounds become that much more jarring to hear when we’re pulled out of his perception; if the sound editing and mixing aren’t noticed during award season, I’ll be genuinely shocked.

On that subject though, it’s Ahmed who truly emerges as Sound of Metal‘s MVP.  He’s simply striking.  Wavering between hopefulness and despair, the manner he conveys Ruben’s resentment, denial, and hesitant acceptance is a beautiful, at times heartbreaking sight to behold.  And playing off him just as powerfully, however brief her screen-time proves to be, Cooke similarly hones that flickering mentality, though with the smallest of glances she conveys the acceptance of Ruben’s situation near-immediately, leading towards a latter sequence which is undoubtedly one of the most tacitly saddening moments I’ve seen put to screen in a great while; “It’s okay, Lou” he softly confirms, breaking all our hearts in the process.

As easy as it is to look at Sound of Metal on a surface level and develop a re-appreciation for the senses, Marder’s film aims deeper than that.  Here he’s highlighting that our identities aren’t mutually linked to what we can say, what we can hear, what we can see, what we can smell, or what we can touch, more what we can be once we get past our own ego.  There’s happiness to be found within sacrifice, and though Marder puts our emotions through the ringer in order to achieve this affirmation, how Sound of Metal realises this proves more than worth the endeavour.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Sound of Metal is screening as part of this year’s AFI Festival, which is being presented virtually between October 15th and 22nd 2020.  For more information head to the official AFI page.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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