In the 2020 drama Mogul Mowgli, co-writer and star Riz Ahmed played a British-Pakistani rapper struck down by a debilitating illness on the eve of his international breakthrough. In Sound of Metal, which premiered in Toronto in 2019, Ahmed plays an American drummer whose life is turned upside down by the onset of deafness. Stylistically these two films could not be more different; Sound of Metal is acutely realist with a docudrama edge, while Mogul Mowgli has been described as a “Sufi horror musical melodrama hybrid”. Yet both films are concerned with identity, a thorny issue with which Ahmed wrestled in the eye-opening 2020 short The Long Goodbye, and which runs through his finest work, including this remarkable Oscar contender.
Ahmed is Ruben Stone, drumming with singer-guitarist Lou (Olivia Cooke) in the noise-merchant two-piece Blackgammon. They’re partners on and offstage, touring the US in a converted RV that doubles as a recording studio. But when Ruben’s hearing abruptly fails, he finds himself outside the bubble in which he has existed for so long.
Having ignored medical advice to avoid loud sounds, recovering addict Ruben is guided by his sponsor, Hector, to a retreat run by Joe, brilliantly played by Paul Raci, the veteran stage and screen actor who is himself a child of deaf parents. Here, the possibility of a new life is offered. But will Ruben’s desperation to regain his hearing thwart future growth?
Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, who made the 2008 treasure-hunter documentary Loot, Sound of Metal has its roots in an unfinished project by Derek Cianfrance, with whom Marder collaborated on the screenplay for The Place Beyond the Pines. Entitled Metalhead, Cianfrance’s uncompleted film was to have starred real-life sludge-metal duo Jucifer in a fictional story about hearing loss. The bones of that abandoned project were taken up by Marder, whose grandmother was deaf, and who co-wrote the Sound of Metal script with his musician brother, Abraham.
With astonishing verisimilitude, Marder conjures a world in which every detail rings true. From the wall-of-noise ambience of Ruben’s rock performances (shot live, in front of real crowds) to heated group debates conducted in American sign language (ASL), Sound of Metal finds universal appeal in the specifics of detail, rooted in Ahmed’s thrillingly committed performance.
“The deaf community taught me what it means to listen,” Ahmed has said, describing the physicality of signing – of using the whole body as an expressive tool. There’s something sublime about watching a performer of Ahmed’s calibre step up to the next level, as if his craft has been amplified by learning this new language. While Ruben may hide behind his words, Ahmed has never been more emotionally expressive than when communicating through ASL.
There is a deft allusion in the title Sound of Metal to the distorted tonalities that beset Ruben when he turns (against Joe’s advice) to cochlear implants. Having brilliantly evoked Ruben’s experience of physical rather than aural vibrations (he can feel the drums, even if he cannot hear them), composer/sound designer Nicolas Becker and his team conjure a harsh electronic dissonance that seems to echo Ruben’s inner conflict. Just as addiction is a central theme, so Ruben’s desperate desire for surgery becomes a metaphor for a wider crisis of faith, an identity struggle embodied in the multilayered sound design.
At times I was reminded of the 2014 Ukrainian drama The Tribe, which, for all its ultra-bleak nihilism, still captured the essence of a collectivist community, a community in which Ruben is welcomed and estranged. Like the underrated 2016 British masterpiece Notes on Blindness, which was released in audio-described and enhanced-soundtrack versions to maximise accessibility, so Sound of Metal is presented with open captions, meaning that in cinema screenings (remember those?) deaf and hearing audiences can experience the film together. That’s fitting for a film that deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience, reminding us of cinema’s unique ability to challenge, entertain, uplift and unite.
• On Amazon Prime from 12 April and in cinemas from 17 May