Riz Ahmed turns in a career-defining performance that not only asserts his rank among cinema’s leading men, but treats often exaggerated genre with a real reverence.
‘Sound of Metal‘ is an extraordinary film that accomplishes a lot in its two hour running time. Maybe not its most impressive feat, but one most endearing to Knotfest, is that it’s a film that gives Metal the respect it deserves. The genre isn’t used in a fleeting instance of aggression, rather, the film really explores the intricacies of Metal, the passion and attention to detail this category encompasses.
It starts with the representation of a metal head, not as a one dimensional caricature overblown to quickly represent a character trait but a fully fleshed human being with actual advanced personality traits, with human emotions and feelings.
That metalhead is Ruben Stone, exceptionally brought to life by Riz Ahmed on a career defining -potentially award winning performance, a mid-level touring drummer in a metal two-piece with front-woman/guitarist girlfriend Lou – another resounding performance this time from Olivia Cooke (Ready Player One, “Bates Motel”).
Ahmed fully engulfs himself into the role, the intricacies he creates are ridiculously on point from dialogue delivery to physical quirks, it goes a long way in fully realizing this fully developed metalhead seen as a human being and again – not a throw-away trait.
Ruben wakes up early, makes a healthy breakfast and works out – again a far cry from past lazy portrayals of the overweight constant beer drinking, steak-only metalhead. Not in a fancy extravagant bus but in an overstuffed van filled with equipment, sleeping arrangements and their mini-but expensive-studio. This isn’t a Hollywood glitzy representation but a gritty-down to Earth exploration of the hard work, sweat and detail driven ethic that represents the majority of bands in our genre.
Mid-show, Ruben’s hearing begins to fade before bellowing completely out leaving him completely distantly lost from his comfortable world of sound. It’s not just the lack of communication that hurts, but the crashing of everything he’s known to love – an absolute full fledge burn of his entire life from his relationship – propped up from tandem music building – to his purpose of life, a purpose that keeps him fledging forward instead of peering back – back at a life full of haunting and devastating destruction.
While this is directly attached to a musician, this loss of meaning and purpose doubles for the viewer and more directly our Knotfest culture and community where we pick each up when we fall, not just in the pit. Using lyrics, breakdowns, shows and online groups to get us through tough times leaning on the metal community to carry us, crowd surfacing us from the back to the front again.
As Ruben’s current purpose falls around him, he lashes out in this new world of hopelessness replacing his past one, once surrounded by cheering admirers is now left completely quiet. The problems run deeper as past issues, personal obstacles he previously overcame, expose themselves as he copes and deals with this unstoppable reality and he tumbles into potentially falling back in addition.
Co-writer/director Darius Marder (written alongside his brother Abraham and from a story created by Darius and acclaimed writer/director Derek Cianfrance – The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine which used the band Jucifer as inspiration – though to note, neither member ever lost hearing) delivers a thrilling and deft experience as the story unravels in an organic grounded way capturing us as part of the experience instead of us viewing the experience in a traditional movie sense that smacks you over the head with plot points. Normally there would be some over-blown exposition on his addiction reveal but Marder plays it out directly the way it would in real-life.
Another major issue the film tackles is the aggressively sprawling disease of addiction, while again it focuses on the musician – a situation all too real where we’ve lost too many legends in the genre, but hits home for viewers as the imploding danger that is crushing our culture as we seen many of our communities ravaged by addition highlighted by opioids throughout the last decade (Nearly 70% of the 67,367 drug-related deaths in 2018 involved an opioid). The film treads it well, again not glorifying or exploiting the struggles but a very grounded walk-through of that experience. What sacrifices need to be made to made it out of world-altering spiral.
Most fearful of his pending plummet back into addition is his close community of Lou and his sponsor, who recommends a support system for his current situation. Lou has to walk a fine line between supporting him by his-side or leaving him to mend on a solo journey in a distant community built on this type of recovery. Ultimately she forces him to enlist in a deaf addition community, focused on healing the mental instead of the physical. That confrontation is forcefully communicated through pen and paper, making the exchange even that much more impersonal sharpening the wound.
This leaves him with zero access to an outside world while still a stranger to this community. He’s deaf to the outside world because of his lack of hearing and deaf to this inner community due to his lack of understanding sign language. Leaving him alone, a stranger without a home.
Ruben expectedly struggles through fear of abandonment both career wise but more importantly relationship wise, afraid of being alone and left behind as she continues their life without him. Suicidal thoughts reoccur, a somber reminder of the tattoo on his chest – another dark opening into a very real problem too many would rather ignore but made up 48,344 U.S. deaths in 2018.
A poignant and stark reflective scene occurs during which Ruben attends a sign language class with young kids and realizes even though this is his life now, he had approximately 30 years with his hearing and most of these kids will never have that, expressing that even in our darkest and most empty times where we feel we lost everything, we have some things to be grateful for. Its at this moment he begins to take stock of his current situation and begin to focus on what his life can be….not what it was.
We watch slowly as the life drains as everything he made his life to be, painfully drips away. A more gripping and realistic version of what the Hollywood-ified film The Artist tried to convey.
The film also nonchalantly opens class war wounds in relation to U.S. healthcare insurance issues in a way similar to the situation that propelled “Breaking Bad”. For $70,000, Ruben can purchase implants that can help him hear again. The pains and struggles people need to go through for lack of money or support are exposed. How devastating this circumstance is when it can easily be a simple process with the right financials or a better health insurance society.
Even though it’s not a major point in the movie, you can’t overlook the importance of representation in this film especially as we expand upon our culture. The two-piece band is composed of a female singer/guitarist with a person of color drummer when our genre is more of less known to the outside world for being comprised of mostly white males.
The representation also extends across the aisle – focusing on those without hearing. Again not-treating them as a simple plot obstacle but delving into this way of life, one that doesn’t treat them as being inconvenienced or handicapped in some way, but one that lives and thrives as any other human. A community of people with emotions, dreams, goals, wants – one not to be looked down upon with pity. It pays tribute to this by including subtitles throughout the entirety of the film so people without hearing don’t have to request a “special” screening of the film or go through adding the captions but an actual film made to include them.
Ultimately for all the incredible film-making this showcased, the thing most memorable and endearing is how it shows even though we’re all broken into smaller groups, we’re all live in a larger humanitarian community.
Sound of Metal is now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
PS – My ringing tinnitus kicked in half way through reminds me of how serious this condition is and how it can happen to anyone. Use your earplugs, listen at a reasonable volume, rock forever.