Ever since breaking out in 2014’s moody thriller Nightcrawler (his mumbling charm is one of the film’s unheralded strengths), Riz Ahmed’s profile continues to be on the rise. Along with being a sturdy supporting player, Ahmed flexed his versatile talents in HBO’s The Night Of, generating massive award buzz for his vulnerable take as an incoming prisoner. Ahmed’s latest starring vehicle Sound of Metal boasts his best performance to date, as his talents carry an emotionally raw character study bristling with authentic truths.
Sound of Metal follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer whose life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing. Alongside his girlfriend/bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke) and his new mentor Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben attempts to adjust to his drastic lifestyle change through therapeutic means.
Writer/director Darius Marder (who collaborated on the screenplay with Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance) wisely morphs this story of loss into a tale of meaningful rehabilitation. His filmmaking verve is established from jump street, opening with an electrifying showcase of Ruben’s passionate musical drive (I’m not a metal fan, but the sequence’s explosive intensity exemplifies undeniable artistic merits). The early emphasis on sound morphs into a nightmarish reality when Ruben’s hearing becomes dulled and distorted. Marder’s scaling audio mixture places audiences right in our protagonist’s frenzied shoes, utilizing thoughtfully-constructed techniques without over-straining their impact (this is a movie made to win sound awards, with the delicate audio profile holding significant narrative weight).
Even with Ruben’s life-changing discovery, Marder’s film never wallows in a pit of despair. Along with conveying the internal pains of addicts (Marder cleverly evolves Ruben’s past drug addictions into a craving for sound, with the character’s personal journey becoming one of self-acceptance), Sound of Metal articulates a spirited voice for its marginalized community. The screenplay empathetically conveys the sentiments of the deaf community, a group that doesn’t view their hearing loss as an impediment. The well-textured authenticity enhances Marder’s dramatic narrative at every turn, surrounding Ruben with compassionate and lived-in figures to aid him in his transition.
Sound of Metal’s ultimate showstopper comes in the form of performance work. Riz Ahmed reaches impressive new heights as the chaotically unwieldy Ruben, a man whose volatile passion often overwhelms his search for inner peace. Ahmed’s performance dials the character’s juxtaposing states with understated emotionality, never striking a false chord as he drives the narrative forward. Olivia Cooke is great as Ruben’s supportive partner, while unheardled character actor Paul Raci steals the show as the film’s soulful center.
While the film doesn’t quite hit every note (the 2-hour runtime is admittedly shaggy, with the third act straining before reaching its heartfelt conclusion), Sound of Metal operates as a compassionate character piece enhanced through its brazen artistic drive.
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