As the Hollywood production line has dwindled into a franchise delivery warehouse, the Academy Awards and their ilk have had little option but to embrace the independent sector. That’s especially true of this year’s welcome crop of such indies and faux-indies as Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Minari.
Of these, Sound of Metal, a muscular drama about a heavy metal drummer losing his hearing, is the contender that could have been a studio’s prestige picture – with, say, a cellist swapped in for the percussionist – back when the studios made grown-up dramas. This sure-footed debut from Darius Marder (who co-wrote the screenplay for Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines) required a decade of redrafts, recasts and research, and its near-documentary adherence to real-world debates within the deaf community is one of its great strengths.
Its main draw, however, is Riz Ahmed, who learned drumming and American sign language for the role. The London-born star of Rogue One and Venom is remarkable as Ruben, a musician and recovering addict who cuts a vulnerable figure even behind the “Please Kill Me” tattoo across his chest. When he realises the extent of his hearing loss, his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) fears a relapse and seeks out a deaf addiction group, run by Vietnam veteran Joe (Paul Raci). Ruben can’t quite get on board with the group’s insistence that deafness is not a disability. Secretly, he researches cochlear implants in the belief that this expensive intervention will bring his old life back. His efforts bring about a profoundly moving denouement.
There’s much to admire here, not least Nicolas Becker’s extraordinary and immersive sound design, which mimics the deterioration of Ruben’s hearing. An additional central role is afforded the closed-caption subtitles. (For this reason, watching the film with headphones is highly recommended). Marder, who co-wrote the script with his brother Abraham, sets out quite a stall with a drama that’s as visceral and hard-hitting as its protagonist’s drum solos.
On Amazon Prime from April 12