Film: Sound of Metal (2019)
Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke
With the recent Oscar nominations, Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim to be nominated for the best actor category in the history of the award. The British-Pakistani actor and rapper displayed some serious acting chops in 2019’s ‘Sound of Metal’, and rightly deserves the nomination. He faces stiff competition from Steven Yeun of ‘Minari’, Anthony Hopkins of ‘The Father’, Chadwick Boseman of ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ and Gary Oldman of ‘Mank’.
‘Sound of Metal’, directed by Darius Marder and written by Darius and Abraham Marder, is an intense, innovative and introspective film that borders on being scary. It is almost like a part-horror film and part-sports film in the veins of ‘Whiplash’ (2014). ‘Sound of Metal’ is not about sports in the conventional sense, but it is about the physically gruelling and perfectionist aspect of music performance, and that’s how we can call it a sport film.
The film opens with the chills-inducing scene where we see the topless and tattooed Ruben (Riz Ahmed), all buffed up and sweating, beating the drums furiously to the heavy metal roaring of his girlfriend and lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke). Darkness and smoke cover the duo on stage and the audience let out screams while banging their heads in the air. This scene is dark and gritty and in the crowds of sweaty spectators, we begin to see the film as one similar to a sports film. Who says music and performance are a walk in the park? To be an exceptional artiste, one has to have discipline and keep working until they are perfect. And perfect is an illusion, no wonder so many artists go mad.
But this is not what ‘Sound of Metal’ is about. One might guess from the opening scene that perhaps it is about a young artist who tries to break into the heavy metal scene and be the greatest musician there ever will be. Perhaps Ruben and Lou indeed have those dreams. But those dreams are shattered when Ruben wakes up one day to find out his ears are failing him. Every sound he makes and every word he utters are registered by his ears, and by the audience (with some amazing sound design), as faint echoes and vibratiotions. For example, when Ruben uses the mixer, it sounds like when somebody puts their one ear on a table and hears muffled sounds, or when somebody is in the other room and talking on the phone faintly and you can’t make out what they are saying, or when one has water in their ears after a thorough shower. The comparisons are endless.
Ruben’s gradual realization that he is losing his hearing is effectively made frightening with handheld cameras and extreme closeups of his aghast face, and the phenomenal sound design invites the audience into his headspace. This tension never quite leaves the screen as we sit on the edges of our seats throughout the film, anticipating things to get worse for the already vulnerable Ruben.
Riz Ahmed is outstanding as the drummer who has been tossed into a whole new world of non-hearing. He never overacts his emotions and confusion and shows us his quiet, tender and inward-looking side. Olivia Cooke is competent as Ruben’s supportive girlfriend and music partner, although her concerned face and endlessly downturned lips get a tad tiring after a while. She has delivered much better performances in 2018’s deliciously wicked ‘Thoroughbreds’ and 2015’s ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’. Paul Raci is in great form as Joe, the Vietnam War veteran and leader at the sanctuary for the hearing impaired. In a heart-wrenching scene towards the end, Joe and Ruben have a back and forth where we feel for both the characters, but Joe truly outshines the lead with his heartbreaking performance and dialogues.
The sound design is world class and is sure to get major technical nominations at the Oscars. ‘Sound of Metal’ expertly balances two different worlds: that of loud sounds and that of silences, the world of anxiety and that of stillness and peace, the kinetic heavy metal scene and the almost-otherworldly and serene sanctionary. At the end of the film, we realize that what he had come to fear (loss of hearing) is maybe not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, maybe it could be a blessing in disguise. The final conclusion is left in the audience’s hands. ‘Sound of Metal’ is available to watch on Amazon Prime India.