Sound of Metal

At the Movies Blog

Riz Ahmed is getting Oscar buzz for playing a drummer going deaf.

As a rock fan, I’ve been to hundreds and hundreds of concerts. It helps that I was a DJ at a rock station, which led to many years of free tickets. There were only a few shows I wish I had earplugs for. Front row at Marilyn Manson, J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr) at the Casbah, Blue Oyster Cult at Brick by Brick, and the side of the stage for an Ozzy performance. 

When I started writing music and other stories for the San Diego Reader, I did a feature on sound engineers at various concert venues. I was surprised when a few of them talked about loud heavy metal concerts they worked, where they woke up the next day with blood on their pillows that had come from their ears. I then realized that the drumset my parents never bought me as a kid, was perhaps a good thing.

I once interviewed The Doors drummer John Densmore and he has tinnitus and hearing issues from all his years drumming. He even told me to talk quieter, because my voice was so loud, it was bothering him (if I had a nickel for everytime someone said that to me). 

So this movie is right in my wheelhouse. Not because the protagonist is a heavy metal drummer (I’m not a fan of that genre); but I’m a huge fan of Riz Ahmed, after being blown away by his performance in Nightcrawlers. 

In his debut film, Darius Marder (he wrote The Place Beyond the Pines almost a decade ago) does a great job with his talented leads, as well as innovative sound design. Whether we clearly hear percolating coffee, or long stretches of silence, or muffled voices you can’t quite understand — we’re right in the world of metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and his hearing problems. We start by seeing (hearing) him having trouble understanding the vocals (and screams) of Lou (Olivia Cooke). She’s the singer, guitarist, manager, and girlfriend that got him to quit smack four years earlier. When we see their next show, Ruben can’t hear a thing, and storms off stage. At that point, he goes to get his ears checked. One of a few things that bothered me about the movie, is that they didn’t do this in a more gradual way. Especially since I think that’s probably more likely how the hearing loss would have occurred. It also would have helped with the development of our understanding of his character. Because at the end of the day, Marder asks us to spend two hours and 10 minutes with this guy, and there are times…not much really happens.

Lou checks Ruben into a halfway house for the hearing impaired, and it was a rather interesting place. It had never occurred to me that there would be a place like this, and it exposes us to a variety of characters. The guy who runs the show, a former Vietnam Vet who lost his hearing from a bomb (Paul Raci), was an alcoholic who then lost his family because of the booze. He’s the tough-love kind of guy we always like in these types of films. And the interaction between him and Ruben is just perfect. There’s a bit of tension, but not an ounce of over-acting or unrealistic dialogue. Ruben gets frustrated, and might be a bit rude, but is also rather respectful. 

And we figured Ruben would come around to the folks he’s now living with, but it doesn’t make it any less wonderful to watch as it transpires. 

One thing I rarely say in reviews is that I can’t imagine another actor playing a certain role. I can see many actors playing many roles. We’re just used to seeing something that feels so perfect, you can’t imagine a different cast. But I will say that here. There’s not another actor I think could have played this role as well as Riz Ahmed. Not just his acting ability, but the facial expressions. The way Ahmed quickly looks away, and looks back at the person he’s arguing with…or bulges out his already big eyes. He can look angry. He can look sad. He sometimes looks confused, or frustrated being in a classroom of people laughing, as he tries to learn sign language. It’s all perfect. Say hello to your Oscar nomination, Mr. Ahmed. 

Oh, and Olivia Cooke isn’t chopped liver. She was in two of my favorite movies of the last five years — Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, and Thoroughbreds. You don’t see as much of her, but when she’s there, she packs a punch.

It was nice to see deaf actress Lauren Ridloff (The Walking Dead), and it was refreshing that Mardur didn’t try to force a romance. Sometimes a man and woman can work together without ending up in bed.

It’s awesome that Raci is in this film. He’s an actor/musician who grew up in the ‘50s with deaf parents. In real life, he sings and signs, on stage for a Black Sabbath tribute band called Wicked World. How that didn’t make it as a subplot into this movie is beyond me.

French actor/director Mathieu Amalric pops up in a few scenes, and that’s always welcome.

One thing that bothered me was at first being confused as to how long Ruben was staying at the halfway house, and how often he communicated with Lou while there. His phone was taken, but he asked her to write. Yet we never see him reading letters from her. And there comes a point when we realize a lot of time has passed, as one character has a tattoo of a drawing he did. Also having Raci’s character talking to him about how fond everyone is of him and offering a job.

I saw the ending coming, but found it rather powerful nonetheless.

The film is also subtitled, so the deaf community will enjoy it as well. It’s just a shame that everyone is probably going to have to enjoy it at home instead of on the big screen.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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