Sound of Metal
Director: Darius Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Mathieu Amalric
American director Darius Marder’s first feature, The Sound of Metal, now playing on Amazon Prime, has been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. More importantly, the film’s star, Riz Ahmed, is in the race for Best Actor, the first ever occasion a Muslim has been honoured in this category.
Marder’s work (he has had only a writing credit before this) reminded me of Indian movies like Shor and Koshish, both dealing with deafness. The Sound of Metal also tackles this disability, but in a different sort of way. Ahmed’s Ruben is very different from the characters Manoj Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar portrayed in Shor and Koshish respectively.
Ahmed’s best remembered role was in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I would think Ahmed is far ahead in his latest outing, The Sound of Metal, in which he essays a punk-metal drummer, Ruben, who has somehow stayed away from substance abuse after meeting the love of his life, Lou (Olivia Cooke). She accompanies him on the guitar.
Now, we have all heard this: sound beyond a certain decibel may lead to deafness, and this is one reason why people do wear ear plugs. But Ruben does not. Maybe as a drummer, he cannot or should not.
One fine morning, the metal drummer finds that all he can hear are garbled noises, a scary scenario for a musician. The doctor tells him that the only way to get back a semblance of his hearing ability is through an implant. But, that will cost a bomb, and insurance does not cover it.
So, Lou feels that Ruben should spend some time in a rehabilitation centre, where he can learn the sign language. This is only till there is enough money for the implant.
Ahmed is simply excellent as a man defeated by a debilitating physical handicap, bringing out forcefully the disappointment, distress, frustration and a strangulating sense of defeatism. His girlfriend is extremely supportive, but Ruben is a wounded animal, standing at crossroads with not the faintest clue as to which way he should head. Ahmed is subtle, restrained and controlled – and these make his performance top grade.
But, Ahmed is pitted against heavyweights, such as the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Anthony Hopkins (The Father) and Gary Oldman (Mank, which has got an Oscar nod in multiple categories). Will Ahmed stand a chance against Boseman (who will get considerable sympathy votes) or Hopkins, the great master actor?
It is a pity that Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with Abraham Marder, has not been able to give us a convincing plot. His entire concentration is on sound design, hardly on telling us more about Ruben as a human being. The director cannot establish this despite the long running time of 132 minutes. Often, the film is too muffled to understand, and we are left without clearer understanding of Ruben’s condition. Had the script paused a bit, and taken us into Ruben’s deafness slowly, gradually, there could have been greater authenticity. Instead, the drummer’s condition comes on very suddenly. We all know that hearing impairment among musicians does not occur without a warning. Did Ruben ignore the first signs? Was he in denial?
These are questions that remain unanswered. If at all The Sound of Metal has a chance, it may just be in the acting category, that is if the jury ignores the sympathy factor (Boseman) and Hopkins’ undeniable brilliance.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic and author of a biography of Adoor Gopalkrishnan)