Sound of Metal Review
Following hot on the heels of Mogul Mowgli comes another music-based drama starring Riz Ahmed, although in a genre less close to home. It’s hardly a surprise given Ahmed has been involved in music longer than he has been an actor, and Sound of Metal sees him take on a role of a drummer in a metal band about to lose his hearing.
Playing around with the sound design allows writer-director Darius Marder to submerge us into Ruben’s (Ahmed) state of mind as the prospect of a life without sound starts to become a reality. Ahmed compensates for a patchy script to deliver one of his best performances to date, detailing Ruben's swirl of emotions as he navigates his way between two worlds. The biggest challenge he faces isn’t learning to cope with a world of silence, but how to accept and come to terms with the stress and anxiety it creates.
It means leaving behind his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), his long-time partner and the lead singer of their two-person group. They travel from gig to gig in a beat-up RV, earning enough to get by so these two outsiders can stay on the road and away from their personal demons. Ruben is a recovering drug addict and Lou has left behind her wealthy upbringing, the couple finding solace in each other and the raw music they make – think a reversed White Stripes, but with much less craft.
The music aspect of the story is brief, as once Ruben is diagnosed he finds his way into a small deaf commune run by Joe (Paul Raci) and undergoes their programme. Despite the remaining bulk of the film remaining in this rural setting Ruben’s arc still feels surprisingly short and shallow, even with a two-hour plus run time. Cooke is also missing for a large chunk of the story, the rules of the commune preventing her from staying onsite. Only a couple of email exchanges give their multi-year relationship any sense it still exists, its importance to Ruben largely given a back seat by Marder. It’s a choice that ultimately dampens the direction of the narrative going into the final act.
You would also assume that Ruben would miss his creative output of drumming, but that too is strangely forgotten. Every musician has an intrinsic connection to their instrument and would be heartbroken by the thought of never being able to play it again and yet the thought barely crosses Ruben’s mind. Sound of Metal also wants to deliver a message that technology used to aid hearing is bad as it lessens deaf people’s autonomy, with Joe’s community not accepting of anyone who pays for cochlear implants. While the tech is no cure for deafness and isn’t without its problems (especially for young brains learning to interpret sound for the first time) it is embraced by some people and taking such a singular, purest stance doesn't add up.
The inherent fear of losing our sight or hearing feels real enough in the opening stages of Sound of Metal, thanks to strong chemistry between Ahmed and Cooke. With Cooke removed from the picture Ahmed comfortably carries the emotional weight, with good support from Raci and other deaf actors seen living in the commune. But the journey Ruben takes from recovering addict to a man at peace with himself largely fails to convince, the gaps in the storytelling too easy to pick apart.
Sound of Metal is released in select US theatres November 20 and on Amazon Prime from December 4.