Sound of Metal review: A powerful, immersive piece of cinema
Ivan Radford | On 12, Apr 2021
Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Where to watch Sound of Metal online in the UK: Amazon Prime
“All these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, have you had any moments of stillness?” asks Joe (Paul Raci) in Sound of Metal. For Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering addict who has signed up to Joe’s retreat, the world is anything but still. He’s the drummer in a heavy metal two-piece, alongside his singer girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). He spends his nights thrashing drums with an intensity that drowns out any other problems or questions that might arise. When he rapidly starts to lose his hearing, it not only threatens to take away his livelihood, but also his sense of identity.
Identity is a recurring theme of Ahmed’s work, and Sound of Metal arrives shortly after the remarkable Mogul Mowgli, in which he plays a rapper who suddenly experiences a debilitating illness and has to question how much his personal self is defined by his professional self. As in that film, Ahmed pours his all into an intensely physical performance that often doesn’t need dialogue, portraying Ruben as someone who can never sit still. He’s a twitching, angst-ridden ball of nerves, seemingly always on the lookout for drumsticks he can pick up and start knocking out a beat. When he and Lou finally talk about his hearing, he suggests he can function as a click track, reducing himself to a metronome that she can perform to. Cooke’s evolving reactions through this crisis says as much about their relationship and life on the road in an RV as Ahmed’s expressive screen presence.
That dynamic, in itself, would be the makings of an interesting movie, but writer-director Darius Marder – who co-wrote the script with his musician brother, Abraham – crafts something revelatory by moving past that starting point. This begins by building an immersive sonic world around his cast, turning Ruben’s routine of booms and bangs into dull thuds and vibrations. It becomes increasingly complicated, as Marder takes us into Joe’s retreat for deaf addicts with thoughtful nuance.
Ruben’s position as an outsider to that group is the reason for casting Ahmed, a hearing actor and someone who is therefore also navigating an unfamiliar environment. Other characters are played by deaf actors, including Chelsea Lee as Jenn, who is drawn to Ruben’s tattoos and comes to trust him, Lauren Ridloff as warmly encouraging teacher Diane, and Jeremy Lee Stone, who worked with Marder to ensure the production was collaborative and accurate in capturing deaf culture. Together with an understated turn from Paul Raci, the hearing son of deaf parents, they bring an authenticity and understanding to this community of support, from the space around each person to be able to sign (in American Sign Language) to the dinner table conversations that flow naturally around a circular table.
Ruben is also positioned as an audience surrogate for hearing viewers, initially unable to understand ASL – at first, we don’t get subtitles for the group’s conversations, despite the use of open captions throughout the rest of the film. Between that and the varying levels of diegetic and non-diegetic acoustics, we’re repeatedly made to fall in and out of Ruben’s perspective, in the kind of studied way that recalls Rear Window, The Conversation and Notes of Blindness.
Yet all of the stunning technical creativity on display – including the sublime, poetic visuals – is in service of a central message that goes beyond the surface-level plot and explores a deeper question of identity. From the rhythm of drumming to the background noises of nature, every beat carries emotional weight, as Ruben tries to accept the fact that losing his hearing isn’t a tragedy or illness that needs to be fixed and learns to dial down his inner white noise. Compared to Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s 2014 masterful The Tribe, a crime thriller that starred a cast of non-professional deaf actors and didn’t deploy subtitles, Sound of Metal is perhaps several steps behind where cinema’s representation of deaf stories could be, but Ahmed’s absorbing, moving journey through this narrative of hearing loss is nonetheless powerful to witness; it will sit with you in moments of stillness long after the credits have rolled.
Sound of Metal is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription. It will also be released in UK cinemas on 17th May.