Let’s take our time to appreciate and celebrate Riz Ahmed’s prodigious talent. In the same year, the British actor and rapper has transported us into two stories, equally poignant and affecting, of sympathetic self-acceptance from perspectives of two completely different musicians who has lost their identities as their bodies weakens. In Mogul Mowgli, he’s an Americanized British-Pakistani rapper whose body betrays himself with an autoimmune disease in an allegory of identity crisis. In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ahmed is a heavy-metal drummer who begins to lose his hearings and immediately plunges into existential hysteria. While built upon similar premise, Ahmed brilliantly exudes one-of-a-kind charm in each performance and splendid range; the latter, however, observes the actor in what probably is his career-defining performance.
Related Post: Review: Mogul Mowgli (2020)
Ahmed is Ruben, a half of the heavy-metal duo alongside his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). The hearing loss comes almost suddenly—almost as instantly as the sound of metal riffs and his drum clashing relentlessly. It begins with a ringing tone that won’t get away even when layered with heavy metal sounds; and, sounds begin to fade and get muffled. Ruben looks and listens but it never returns. In his eyes, we can see through his exasperation and fear for the future that has faded from his vision. As a musician, nobody can’t imagine losing hearing amidst their skyrocketing career and so does Ruben. For him, the matters become more complicated since the band is like a communion with his girlfriend.
The conflict enters early in the story—written by Marder with stories from Derek Cianfrance—and it’s only the beginning of Ruben’s spiritual odyssey. From there, Ruben’s history of addiction is unraveled; lost with no guidance and in fear of relapse, Lou finally asks Ruben to visit a community of deaf people struggling with addictions. The reluctant drummer has a second thought but is finally moved as he “learns to be deaf.” Marder presents the protagonist’s journey of self-acceptance in a gradual yet solid process. At first, we can learn—just by looking at Ahmed’s facial expression—how frustrating the whole shift is for Ruben. People are shutting their voice down and talking in sign language—something that seems infuriating for him in the start, but as he progresses, has loosened up his nerve.
Related Post: Whiplash (2014)
Sound of Metal doesn’t rush with the beat of heavy-metal, but it’s rather sporadically moves with serene pace that allows us to get into Ruben’s head quite literally. Marder, working excellently with Nicolas Becker in the sound department, lets audiences hear what the protagonist hears with sophisticated sound design. The dramatic moments—that barely heighten for the whole duration—are built in accordance with the change of audio-visual feels. Sometimes, with the audio muffled and constant noise ringing in the background, dialogues become irrelevant; at the same time, sign language are not subtitled. This brings us to an immersive experience to what Ruben has to endure. Our only compass is Ruben’s expressions—whether he’s confused or terrified or optimistic—that Ahmed delivers with subtle, nuanced performance.
What Sound of Metal tries to convey is the fact that the protagonist always has options in his quest for self-acceptance. What it does not tell us in advance is the consequence. Most of the plot follows Ruben’s slippery and tough road to accept his condition and to move on with his brand new life. And yet, there’s much more to it than the first half of the film ever suggests. His hearing is a crucial element that helps us stay away from the past and looks forward to the future. At some points, it feels like it’s the only thing Ruben can rely on, but when it’s been taken away, it’s brought a provoking dilemma: Is his new life worth appreciating when the thing that matters has been stripped away? The answer is a compelling drama from start to finish with Ahmed’s performance hits a new height, however unfair the conclusion seems to be.