Riveting and heartbreaking: Sound of Metal reviewed

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

10 April 2021

9:00 AM

Sound of Metal

In cinemas from 17 May, Amazon Prime from 12 April

The multi-Oscar-nominated Sound of Metalstars Riz Ahmed as a heavy-metal drummer whose life is in freefall after losing his hearing. Ahmed learned to play drums for the part. And he learned American Sign Language. And he learned to perform with white noise in his ears. However, he did not have to learn how to be riveting because, if you’ve followed his career, you’ll know he’s been that since day one, and he is magnificently, powerfully, heartbreakingly riveting here. If he doesn’t win the Oscar I’ll be furious. That counts for nothing, I know. But it had to be said.

It is directed by Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham Marder. At the outset Ruben (Ahmed) plays in a band with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Their music is phenomenally loud. Their lyrics are screamed, violently. You and I would find it torture. You and I would not buy their albums. But they seem to have an audience, albeit a niche one, and are happy, living nomadically from a camper van and touring America constantly. (Ahmed is from Wembley and Cooke is from Oldham but they both play Americans here.)

One day he’s laying out their merchandise before a gig when suddenly, just like that, it’s as if he’s underwater. He can’t hear what anyone else is saying. It’s blub-blub-blub. He tilts his head, as if to dislodge whatever is in his ears. He then freezes, waiting for his hearing to return. It doesn’t. When he made Lou a smoothie the day before, the sound of the liquidiser was ear-splitting. Now, it’s a far-off mumble. Truly, you’ve never been more saddened by a liquidiser in your life. It is even entirely possible that you didn’t know you could be saddened by a liquidiser.

It is painful. For him. And for us. When he visits a doctor where he’s told he’s lost 80 to 90 per cent of his hearing and it will likely deteriorate further, we are devastated. Lou returns to her father in France but not before finding Ruben somewhere to go. This is a remote commune for deaf addicts. Ruben is a heroin addict, but four years clean. The commune is run by Joe (Paul Raci, also Oscar nominated), a Vietnam veteran for whom deafness is an identity, a culture and a positive. I found him a bit creepy, but l don’t think that was intended. He spells it out. ‘We don’t fix anything here,’ he says. But can Ruben accept his new reality? Will he let the idea of cochlear implants go? Can he find meaning in silence? He has lost what defined him. How does anyone deal with that, the film asks.

You can’t convey the power of this film in words. I’ve yet to read a review that does, thankfully. (Otherwise it would be solely my limitation, as if that were possible.) Ahmed, via his performance, does not ask us to pity Ruben. Instead, it’s a performance that quietly draws us into his distress and while that doesn’t feel like a fun two hours, it is entirely compelling and incredibly affecting. Even when he is doing nothing you know he is a well of hurt. And there is a scene between him and Lou in the third act that will tear your heart right out.

Plus, this isn’t a cynical film like, say, Children of a Lesser God, which was a film about deafness for hearing people, which is what the box office likes. Most of it is subtitled, whether you care for that or not, and there are scenes where characters talk to each other in ASL which means only deaf people will understand. And the sound design is astonishing, as it plunges us into Ruben’s world; a world of muffled, barely there sounds, or a tinny, chaotic cacophony. Oscars all round. Or I’ll be furious.

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