Is there an actor today who’s more interesting to look at than Riz Ahmed? With those giant, watchful eyes, that angular face, and his sheer physical presence, he seems at times like a silent-movie performer who accidentally landed in the 21st century. He’s not broad, exactly. It’s more like he’s a language unto himself. When we’re sucked into the vortex of his intensity, subtlety and grace and realism get redefined: Gestures that might feel too big when made by other actors seem understated and convincing in his hands. Early on in Sound of Metal, Ahmed’s character, Ruben, a small-time punk metal drummer, discovers he’s losing his hearing. It comes on suddenly — the sound drops out from his surroundings, and voices become muffled. Ruben reaches for his ears, his eyes dart around, and we see abject terror on his face. And just like that, we are completely locked into this man’s gathering existential panic. Ahmed makes the moment, and the next moment, and the moment after that, about more than just hearing loss. After all, Ruben is a musician; at risk might be his very identity.
Sound of Metal conveys Ruben’s despair without sensationalizing it. His bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), convinces him to visit a rural community for deaf people struggling with addictions — he’s a recovering heroin user, and although he’s been clean for four years, it’s clear that his current situation could prompt a relapse. Ruben is reluctant to stay in this place at first, but then Lou forces his hand and leaves him there, in the hands of Joe (Paul Raci), a kindly but strict recovering alcoholic who runs the community, and who lost his own hearing in a bomb explosion in Vietnam decades ago.
Most of the film follows Ruben’s winding path from wounded, temperamental dynamo raging against his predicament to a person learning to accept and appreciate his new life. That’s not, to be fair, much of a story on paper. (And in truth, there’s a bit more to it than that, which I won’t spoil.) But Sound of Metal isn’t a story movie. It’s a movie movie, which you should open your eyes and ears to and pay some attention; it would have been wonderful to experience in a theater. Writer-director Darius Marder’s achievement lies in his ability to build drama, tension, and emotion through the changing visual and sonic textures of the film, for which the director and his sound designer Nicolas Becker have built a rich, complex soundtrack that dips in and out of the world of the hearing and what Ruben is experiencing. The movie may be stylized, but it’s not ostentatious. Its universe feels lived-in and authentic; most of the excellent supporting cast are deaf themselves.
An actor like Ahmed becomes invaluable in such an arrangement. When a film’s drama has to be conveyed through images and sounds and not so much through dialogue and story beats, one needs a star who can build entire worlds out of his movements, his glances, even his very posture. (Also, when did Ahmed get so ripped?) Ruben’s early days with hearing loss are marked by inchoate cacophony, both visual and sonic; as he sits in on meetings where everyone else is using sign language, he is adrift, annoyed. Before he lost his hearing, Ruben spoke and charged forward with a kind of studied, intense military precision, almost like he was keeping the darkness of addiction and his own self-destructiveness at bay. Once that psychic orderliness is upended, he doesn’t know what to do. Learning to sign, to open up, to pay attention to the people around him becomes about more than just communicating. His surroundings become clearer and warmer — maybe not orderly anymore, but more inviting and real. His tense body relaxes. Those big eyes, sometimes terrified, sometimes terrifying, start to glow with compassion. We’re watching a new man being born. But does he realize it? That’s the heartbreaking question with which this beautiful film leaves us.
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