The Sound of Silence
Sound of Metal is a drama that is way more than just simply music. The film stars Riz Ahmed who gives a career defining performance, and a (virtual) trip to the Oscars could possibly be in his future thanks to his portrayal of a heavy metal drummer with tinnitus. The film also co-stars Olivia Cooke who gives an expectedly great performance as well, but it's Ahmed who carries the film on his shoulders. The film is written and produced by Derek Cianfrance, who is most known for Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. As one would expect from a screenplay of his, it's masterfully written and is beautiful and poignant. Let's dive into the meat and potatoes of one of the best films of the year so far.
Premise and Execution
The premise is rather simple: a punk/metal drummer with tinnitus has what he values most stripped away from him, and he must now learn to cope with that - or find another way. Now, on the surface, simple premises may turn people off. But, when we know the stakes, and what it means to our protagonist - this can make us even more invested. And this was absolutely the case with my viewing experience. Right from the get-go, you're either all the way in or out on this film. It starts with his performance with his girlfriend who plays guitar and lead vocals, and he plays the drums, obviously. After that, we become invested in their relationship. This is an underrated aspect of the film because I feel most movies screw up the relationship or are so overwrought with cliched and overdone nonsense that they always screw it up. This film underplayed and soft sold their relationship - and I have to appreciate that because so many films (like this film or otherwise) never get that right - but, conversely, this nailed it. They tour together living paycheck to paycheck, gig to gig in a quaint, but sizable RV. It's only until the subsequent shows we figure out our protagonist's world is about to come crashing down. The execution of the premise is wonderfully done. The writing, direction, acting, and the realistic and grounded nature of the film served it well. Let's dive into the screenplay, which was the heart of the film - and had to be executed with pinpoint accuracy and pure authenticity for this to work.
Writing ASL *SPOILER TERRITORY*
You have been warned.
So, on to spoilers. As you might have guessed, our protagonist becomes deaf after his next show with his girlfriend. He tries to figure out the next steps, but first, he must cope with the loss of his hearing and how this will inevitably impact his subsequent performances. The screenplay of this film is fantastic. As I mentioned, it's wholly genuine, down to Earth, and hugely effective in portraying the world lived in by deaf people and how they adapt to this way of life. Some have criticized the film for not casting an actually deaf actor in the lead role. While this might be a valid criticism, I felt that Riz Ahmed played this to perfection and I did not have a huge issue with it. More on that later. Back to the screenplay, it felt to me as if Cianfrance had either done incredible amounts of research, consulted with a deaf person or deaf community, or perhaps a combination of both. Much research had to be put into that community and how it impacts their daily lives. The world that is created feels so lived in, as if I wasn't watching a film at all - but rather, peering into their actual lives - which I love. This only added to the genuine nature of the screenplay, and the film as a whole. Now, what interests me greatly as a screenwriter is that Cianfrance must have written American Sign Language (ASL) into the screenplay as much of it is done using sign. Once you reach a certain point in the film, Riz Ahmed essentially goes to a retreat in which he has no outside contact whatsoever, must learn sign language, and adapt to his new way of life. Once this takes over, his character really struggles, adapts, and develops in a wholly realistic and genuine way, and right from the heart. Which brings me to my next point: Riz Motherf*cking Ahmed!
Riz F*cking Ahmed
I have loved Riz Ahmed since his star-making performance in the HBO limited series, The Night Of. Anyone who knows me well will know that this is one of my favorite miniseries' of all time. He is tremendous in that series and I would highly recommend you check that out, and again if you have already. On to his performance in Sound of Metal: Riz Ahmed absolutely kills this role. He plays the drummer losing his hearing, and very nearly his mind to perfection. It is also referenced that he's a recovering addict and that he may or may not have inflicted self-harm. His significant other has also inflicted self-harm, so it's not all that unreasonable to assume that maybe he has as well. Clearly, he is a broken individual who is healing, and trying to heal while also trying to keep it together while struggling to make ends meet, maintaining relationships, and coping with the loss of his passion. Ahmed very well be awarded an Oscar nomination for this role, as I mentioned earlier. I want to reinforce this point because he is quite a young actor and this is a relatively small film. It would be nothing short of amazing if he attains this sort of recognition - even if it's more than deserved.
A Different Take on Deafness
What's easy to relate and sympathize with the plight of the protagonist is that we can all imagine having our greatest passion being ripped away from us. What I appreciated about the film is the direction in which the plot takes us. The reluctant victim who knows what he must do, but is strongly resistant to the correct path. More importantly, when he does attend the "wellness" retreat, or whatever you want to call it, it's like a more grounded Karate Kid-esque journey he must embark on in order to defeat his bull-headedness and do what he must do in order to assimilate into this new lifestyle. I want to emphasize that it is far more grounded and realistic than the aforementioned film, but it is an apt parallel. In any case, he also attends a deaf school with other deaf children where he learns to adapt to losing the sense he clung to the most and learn the ways of ASL. The film poses a very important and thought-provoking dilemma: what would you be willing to sacrifice to regain your ability to hear - or what steps would you take in order to adapt to this lifestyle and cope with the loss of your sense of hearing? I also want to stress that other films that deal with deafness absolutely screw this up. I don't claim to know everything about this near subculture, but this can be electric when done well (Sound of Metal) or disastrous when fumbled (every other poser film). This is what I respect and appreciate the most about this film - they got the deafness aspect right. To that I say: well done, and bravo.
If you couldn't tell by now, I loved this film. It was so spot-on with very nearly every aspect of the filmmaking. From the intimate cinematography, to the impeccable writing and acting - this film nails this life lived by our protagonists, and so many other aforementioned aspects. I have to keep harping on the genuine nature of the film and the pure authenticity which raise the film above other run of the mill, forgettable music themed dramas. Additionally, films which center around deafness don't usually hit quite like this - Sound of Metal just hits different. Once again, Riz Ahmed carries the film on his back with his tremendous, beautifully understated and all-around-the-eyes performance. The film absolutely nails the deaf community/lifestyle/subculture so well and it shows in the attention to detail and in the clear research and consulting that was undoubtedly done in preparation for this. Another thing I wanted to point out: I've seen some criticism of the film's ending and I have to say that it's completely unwarranted. The ending is perfect in terms of its payoff to an earlier scene which planted dialogue and a moment which would come into play at the film's conclusion. I thought it was as well done as it could be. I can somewhat understand the knee-jerk reaction to the ending, but if you ponder it enough and think back to the scene which is paid off in the end given that context, you will like it a lot more. Guaranteed.
Very nearly everything to do with this film deserves this kind of praise, and I do sincerely hope that it will be seen by many and given the attention that it deserves come Oscar time.
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Sound of Metal is an Amazon original film and can be seen streaming on Amazon Prime Video.