Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric, Domenico Toledo, Chris Perfetti
Director: Darius Marder
Rating: Four stars ( out of 5)
A self-sustaining bubble made up of sound and its reverberations contains the entire world of heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone, fleshed out absolutely brilliantly by Riz Ahmed. All of a sudden, all that remains is the bubble. Sound goes out of the percussionist's life. He begins to lose his hearing. Stillness threatens to engulf him. And thereby begin the struggles of the newly-deaf protagonist of the marvellously well chiselled Sound Of Metal.
Directed by Darius Marder with a screenplay written by him and his brother Abraham Marder, Sound Of Metal is out on BookMyShow Stream a couple of weeks ahead of the Oscar ceremony where the film will be competing for statuettes in as many as six award categories, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
Editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen and sound designer Nicolas Becker, whose contributions to the way Sound of Metal flows and the manner in which it resonates across a wide decibel range are palpable all through the film, are also in Oscar contention.
Unlucky to miss out is cinematographer Daniel Bouquet, who frames Ruben's tussle with himself and the gradual dissipation of sound from his world in a befittingly 'fidgety' manner that approximates the confusion raging in a soul rendered unsteady by a misfortune that strikes at the very of essence of the principal character's being.
The provenance of Sound of Metal is worth noting. The film has originated from Metalhead, an unfinished docufiction movie that Derek Cianfrance worked on well over a decade ago. The story hinges on a drummer whose eardrums are ruptured and he goes deaf. It featured members of the American sludge metal band Jucifer playing themselves. The project was scrapped and left incomplete until Cianfrance gave Darius Marder, co-writer of Metalhead, the go-ahead to revive the script and see it through to fruition.
Sound of Metal, which is every inch its own beast, is a moving drama that uses sound, its excess, its absence, and its distortions, to encapsulate the universe of a recovering drug addict who has been criss-crossing America in his RV along with his girlfriend and singer Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke) for four years, performing gigs.
Their peripatetic lifestyle, as it turns out, mirrors the unsettled growing-up years that Ruben and Lou have lived through. Constant movement from one place to another, unhappy ruptures, a search of fulfilment and constancy, and coming to terms with absences imposed by the broken relationships of their respective parents have, directly or indirectly, impacted the shape their characters, and directions their lives, have taken.
When life on the road in each other's company begins to restore to them a semblance of stability, Ruben runs into an unexpected calamity. The metal duo has a tour booked when he discovers that his ears are acting up. A doctor is unable to ascertain if the condition is a result of an autoimmune issue or of an exposure to loud noises. Not that it matters. What does is that Ruben is now staring at an uncertain future as a musician.
The doctor tells him that he can hear only 20 to 30 per cent of the sound around him and the state of his hearing will only worsen. Cochlear implants, intrusive procedures too expensive to be covered by insurance, are his only hope now. Ruben wants to carry on performing in order to make the money he needs for the surgery but Lou, concerned about his well-being, puts her foot down.
The action shifts to a rural shelter for deaf addicts-on-the-mend run by Joe (Paul Raci, the film's second Oscar nominee for acting), a former alcoholic who lost his hearing during the Vietnam War. When he farms out specific jobs to the inmates of the community, Joe assigns to Ruben the task of simply learning "how to be deaf", not an easy call at all for an individual who has been in the business of making sound all his life. Getting a grip on a life of silence is bound to take some doing for anybody and everybody, but for a drummer it can only be doubly difficult and disorienting.
Riz Ahmed demonstrates his oft-proven mettle as he fleshes out a man focused on regaining his old life even as the shock, bewilderment and emotional turmoil sparked by a medical crisis pushes him off the rails and into a state where a meltdown is only one false step away.
The actor, the first Pakistani-origin screen performer to garner an Oscar nomination and also the first-ever Muslim to earn a lead acting nod, uses his body, head, face and eyes to articulate the worsening angst of the character. He adroitly walks the line between anger and anguish, despair and hope, resolve and indecision. The conviction with which he plays the drums and uses ASL (American Sign Language) belies the fact that Ahmed has had to learn both in order to play the role of Ruben Stone.
For Paul Raci, whose role on screen is to serve as a calming influence on the volatile Ruben, the taciturn Joe is a perfect fit. The veteran actor, who was raised by deaf parents, understandably demonstrates complete mastery over sign language.
When Raci and Ahmed communicate on the screen, it is apparent that two diverse worlds are at play, both in the sense of who the two actors are in real life and who they are playing on screen, and this meta overlapping between the real and the fictional works to the advantage of the film as a whole and of the performances in particular.
Olivia Cooke's character, too, in a way, is a sounding board who does not get thrown off by Ruben's mood swings and occasional need to be reined in for his own good. She is terrific. In fact, there is little in Sound of Metal that isn't well-nigh perfect, not the least among which is a cameo by Mathieu Amalric, cast as Lou's wealthy Parisian father.
Sound of Metal is a finely-etched, captivating character study that examines how disquieting the sudden blocking out of sound can be while it riffs on the core theme of the possibilities of alternate means of communication that deafness might create. In fact, the film questions whether silence is at all an impediment for communication. It mixes sound, a lot of it very loud, and silences, much of it exquisitely evocative, besides setting the stage for a high-quality lead performance, to deliver a memorable cinematic experience.