Here’s a bit of breaking news. I can be a cynical asshole at times. I can hear your shocked gasps through the internet itself at this stunning revelation. But it’s true, especially as we get closer to Awards Season. With the Academy’s timetable shifted back by two months, we’re just now getting to the point we’d traditionally be in around November, i.e. the start of the holiday season and the influx of studio prestige fare, with films of varying quality vying for attention and the marketing departments of the major studios competing – and sometimes outright bribing – members of the press to get the sound bites and pull quotes needed to make a “For Your Consideration” campaign. If you’ve never seen it, Adam Ruins Everything did a great segment on it a few years ago.
So as we approach the various deadlines (some of which have already passed), my cynicism switch gets flipped on, and I begin to question the candidates from this angle before any nominations even get handed out. For the purposes of a film like Sound of Metal, the obvious contender is lead actor Riz Ahmed, best known previously for supporting roles in Rogue One and Venom. Affliction is a typical box check in the acting categories. Basically if your main character has some form of disability or illness that defines their journey, you can all but guarantee they’ll get a nomination. Whether it’s Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, or any number of other examples I can easily rattle off, if there’s something physically or mentally wrong with your protagonist, you’ve got the inside track.
Ahmed’s character Ruben fits the bill perfectly, as a heavy metal drummer who suddenly goes deaf, throwing his art and his entire life into chaos. For the lazy awards voter who only reads the blurbs and takes the gift baskets, the tagline alone is enough to get him a nod. The real question, though, is if his performance would merit consideration without the affliction, and if so, does the larger film also deserve consideration?
I’m happy to say that the answer on both fronts is a resounding yes.
As one half of the metal duo Blackgammon (awesome band name, by the way), Ruben is a dedicated musician along with his girlfriend Lou, played by a great, if underutilized, Olivia Cooke. The film opens with them giving a performance, and while the scene cuts to Lou singing/screaming, it’s more coverage than anything else to break up the super tight shots of Ruben just beating into his drum kit, a passionate rage enhanced by wide eyes that show a hyper degree of focus as he pounds out every note with increasing, almost blinding speed. After the song ends, the title card flashes and the scene immediately cuts to an RV where the couple lives and drives to various gigs, with Ruben beginning the day bright and early to work out, cook breakfast, and perform routine maintenance on their equipment before waking Lou.
These first five minutes alone do more service to Ruben’s character than the plot device of his eventual deafness. It shows that Ruben is a committed artist, is deeply in love with Lou (the old school jazz and R&B records they dance to give lie to the stereotypes of metal heads as well), and is a creature of habit. The macabre nature of his tattoos along with the scars on Lou’s forearm hint at shared trauma, but in each other they’ve found happiness. The enhanced sounds of the smoothie mixer and coffee pot give us a hint of the everyday noises we take for granted.
Everything you need to know about Ruben is established in these first few minutes, so that when the hammer drops and he suddenly loses the vast majority of his hearing, we can see the disarray this truly causes for someone with his circumstances. Because Riz Ahmed has done such a convincing job of portraying Ruben in just that short timeframe, the rest of the film that incorporates his handicap becomes that much more believable, rather than a crass attempt to dupe audiences and voters into handing out unearned praise by exploiting a disability.
That’s the crucial element that carries Ahmed’s performance throughout the film. By establishing him as a multi-faceted, flawed human being, we can relate to him and see his reactions in a way that makes total sense. He acts in a way that any of us would if we were in his shoes, and that’s a feat that not too many actors can pull off, and far too few movies actually care enough to depict. If anything, the fact that Ruben’s a recovering drug addict feels more tacked-on than the central conceit, as it serves to move the plot forward and put Ruben into a group home with other deaf addicts to get him the coping therapy he needs. It also cheapens his relationship with Lou just a touch, because it makes it feel more codependent than just two damaged people falling in love. But because the filmmakers took the time to create a believable character, and because Riz Ahmed plays it to the hilt before the deafness even happens, I’m more than along for the ride.
So now that Ahmed has actually proven his case for a nomination independent of the affliction check box, what other awards consideration does the film deserve? The first, clearly, is for the sound design. Before the Academy merged Sound Editing and Sound Mixing awards back into one category this year, I would have had a hard time gaging its chances, because this is a film that is largely dependent on the sounds it uses and the ones it omits, similar to A Quiet Place a couple years ago. But that film, amazingly, was only nominated for Sound Editing (effects), and ended up losing. Were there still two categories, I’d fear the same fate for Sound of Metal, despite it having the best sound design in any film of 2020.
I’ve already mentioned the drumming and the elevated mundane noises, but there’s so much more to laud here. As Ruben starts to go deaf, the relative volume of just about everything around him rises and falls, with the ringing of tinnitus intruding to help the audience share his discomfort. Depending on the focal character in a given scene, we can either hear them talking or not in appropriate measure. As Ruben continues to perform, we can almost feel the vibrations coming through the screen in the form of the greatly reduced decibel level, like a modern Beethoven sawing off the piano legs and composing with his ear to the floor. Ironically, I learned last year that there’s new evidence to suggest that Beethoven himself may have never gone completely deaf in the first place. Funny how those things work themselves out.
But the best bit of sound comes from one of the most innovative effects in the film. Eventually, Ruben decides to correct his condition by getting cochlear implants in the hopes of regaining part of his normal life. I knew such things existed, going back to an episode of Scrubs from more than a decade ago, but I never really knew how they worked, and what the world sounded like to someone who got them. I even watched a couple YouTube videos on the subject after watching the film, and couldn’t come up with anything concrete. This film takes the bold step of hazarding a guess by giving Ruben a cacophony of surrounding noise without focus, as if all the sounds in his general vicinity were given an equal mix, and filled with feedback like someone futzing with dials to tune in a radio frequency. This leaves Ruben confused, as he can’t pinpoint the direction of someone speaking unless he’s looking directly at them, and adds an unexpected yet brilliant layer of indirect paranoia to his performance.
The second major category to consider is Supporting Actor. Paul Raci has had a long career playing bit parts on TV, most notably in an episode of Baskets, and was a regular voice actor in the Spawn animated series back in the 90s. But this is his first major featured role despite 35 years of steady character work. Raci plays Joe, who runs a rehab house for recovering addicts who are deaf. Joe lost his hearing as a soldier in Vietnam, and turned to alcohol to cope after returning home, leading to destructive behavior that cost him his marriage among other things. He forms a bond with Ruben, giving him therapy both as an individual and within the larger group of the home, and shows him outlets for his skills and passions – including music – by way of the deaf community. He is a man of faith who nonetheless finds a kindred spirit in the atheist Ruben by sharing the experience with him, most notably through an exercise where every morning he and Ruben go to different rooms and write until they can simply sit and enjoy the silence.
But Joe is also not a fully saintly character. As good as his intentions are, he overcompensates by trying to rewrite Ruben’s entire outlook on life. When Ruben decides to get cochlear implants, Joe feels betrayed. His mission is to live and show that deafness is not a handicap, which is noble from the standpoint that being deaf should not make you feel like you’re “less than” anyone else. But Joe goes beyond that measure and treats the very concept of hearing as another form of addiction, and therefore can’t reconcile his morality with Ruben’s. He sees Ruben’s desire for normalcy as a relapse despite it being an expected response to his condition, and a positive step forward in his recovery. In that way, he himself displays a form of meta addiction, because he can’t bear to lose one of his flock. He feels like a failure because he couldn’t convert Ruben, even though he did help him find perspective.
It’s a very sweet, nuanced performance that Raci gives, mostly because he’s lived this experience for his entire life. While he can hear, he was raised by deaf parents, and has been fluent in American Sign Language since childhood. He’s gone on record criticizing the ways deafness is portrayed in media, and has seized the opportunity to change the conversation about representation for his community, both in how they’re depicted, but also in simply getting work in the Hollywood system. But what makes the performance work, just like Ahmed’s, is that deafness doesn’t define the role. It’s an aspect, not the entire driving force. The only indication Joe gives in the film that he’s deaf himself is that when he speaks, he tells people that he can read lips, so he asks them to face him when they talk. Everything else about him is completely natural, with his actions dictating the perception of the character, rather than this singular trait. In a less caring film, Joe would be completely one-dimensional, if not an outright caricature, but because of the outright normalcy that Raci injects into the role, based on his own lived experience (which I only learned of after watching the film and doing research for this review), Joe exists not as a deaf character, but as a character who happens to be deaf, if you take my meaning.
There are some flaws to be had along the way. The film is structurally sound, but it does drag in parts, and the editing is a bit off in places, including in that crucial opening scene. When the focus is on Olivia Cooke, a blurry Ahmed can be seen in the background, sitting up straight and drumming fairly calmly, only for the shot to cut back to Ahmed hammering with a righteous fury, bent forward while his arms are in a disciplined frenzy. Also, as previously mentioned, I just wish there was more of Olivia Cooke. She’s a tremendous actress, and I think giving Lou more screen time would have reinforced Ruben’s tenacity to get better. Some of the interactions at the rehab home seem forced, and the third act introduction of Lou’s father Richard, played by Mathieu Amalric, feels a tad superfluous. It leads to a couple crucial moments at the end of the film, but I feel like it could have been handled a bit more organically.
These are minor faults that simply prevent the film from entering the 2020 pantheon. This is still an outstanding and creative bit of work, led by two nomination-worthy performances in spite of affliction rather than because of it. Also, like I said, no film of the last year had a more ingenious sound design. By the end, like Ruben, you’re able to enjoy the silence because of the imaginative places the joyous noise has taken you, and that’s worthy of applause any day, even if some can’t hear it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was the best sound effect you heard in this movie? What other unsung actors should get a chance to shine? Let me know!