Riz Ahmed is a genius. He’s also the first Muslim to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and the first Muslim to be nominated for a Best Actor BAFTA. Of course, labels can be reductive. Some actors, like Tahar Rahim, (BAFTA nominated for The Mauritanian), would rather not discuss religion. Ironically, Rahim plays a proud Muslim in The Mauritanian, while Ahmed’s character, in this film, has no faith or creed. The bigger point is that our cultural landscape is being transformed and Ahmed (who, as Ruben Stone, has never looked weirder or more beautiful; picture a meerkat on steroids) has become a poster-boy for that change.
Rootless American drummer Ruben (Ahmed) plays in a band with girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). He’s an ex-junkie. Her wrists are covered in scars. He pounds out beats as expertly as Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart. She snarls like The Cramps’ Poison Ivy.
The pair are joined at the crotch, but when Ruben’s hearing starts to malfunction, he finds himself in a place (a retreat for D/deaf addicts) where Lou can’t follow. The centre’s manager, Joe (Paul Raci) is an ex-user himself and encourages Ruben to seek inner peace, rather than pinning his hopes on expensive implants. Ruben learns ASL (American Sign Language) and begins to bond with a group of deaf children. However hard he tries, though, he can’t stop thinking about Lou.
Cooke was cast as a fragile punk musician in Life Itself, one of the most blitheringly pretentious movies ever made about the mysteries of the universe. Let’s just say that via this lovely and understated performance, Cooke has cleared her balance with the cosmos.
So many of the scenes between Lou and Ruben are hilarious and (if you’re a music buff) impressively authentic. Scriptwriter Derek Cianfrance used to be a drummer; Ahmed learnt how to play for real. All their hard work pays off. That said, it’s the tension between Joe and Ruben that generates the greatest thrills.
Raci, the child of deaf parents and a real-life ex-addict, is brazenly non-Hollywood. His gaunt face resembles a piece of driftwood; his thin hair flutters like sea-weed. He’s also abundantly talented and as the serenely strident Joe, completely magnetic.
Sound of Metal endorses Joe’s separatist, Luddite philosophy. It’s controversial to suggest that technology, far from being a friend to those with disabilities, is an insidious foe. I have skin in this game. As someone who couldn’t function without contact lenses, I’ve benefited from exactly the kind of scientific advances that Joe views with suspicion. Yet the uncompromising climax left me on cloud nine.
Throughout the proceedings, first-time director Darius Marder makes ingenious use of open captions. The subtitles mean Marder’s emotional epic is accessible to the D/deaf, but many of the descriptions (“Angry Shouting” etc) also draw attention to Nicolas Becker’s extraordinary sound design. Becker, who worked on the blockbusters Gravity and Arrival, innovates at every turn. Simply put, you don’t hear movies like this every day.
130mins, cert 15. Prime Video from Monday. In cinemas from May 17