Riz Ahmed’s Oscar-nominated performance in Sound of Metal, as a heavy metal drummer going deaf, is a tour de force.
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From Shakespeare to noir, surfer dude to reluctant fundamentalist, at this point, it seems like there’s nothing Riz Ahmed can’t do. He’s also that rare actor that can play a very smart character (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and a very stupid one (Girls) with equal aplomb. He’s one of the most versatile and compulsively watchable actors working today to the point that he makes any film he’s in a must see just for his performance.
Sound of Metal is one such film, and director Darius Marder is completely attuned to Ahmed’s performance so that we are, too. Ahmed stars as Ruben, a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict whose sudden hearing loss nearly leads him off the wagon, which precipitates a sojourn at a rehab centre for the deaf.
The film opens on a medium shot of Ahmed’s Ruben at a drum kit, listening for his cue, before starting to rigorously play the drums. It makes for a stark contrast once he loses his hearing and instead of watching him listen, we watch him watch, his eyes flicking from side to side as he tries to keep up with what’s going on around him, especially when he’s suddenly immersed in sign language without understanding it. Ahmed makes watching Ruben think exciting, even as he also portrays Ruben as not the brightest bulb.
Because Ruben spends much of the film unable to communicate, Ahmed has to convey his complex journey — accepting the changes to his body, dealing with his anger, and avoiding a relapse — almost entirely physically. When we meet him, he’s relaxed, his movements fluid, and he has incredible tenderness with his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) whom he wakes up one morning with the gentle caress of a drumstick. Once he starts to lose his hearing, Ahmed will become stock still, trying to make out the sounds around him to no avail, and trying not to panic. The worse it gets, the stiffer he becomes and the more jittery, unable to sit still or remain calm. He also turns inward, huddling into himself, his arms crossed in front of himself, a far cry from his open space-filling posture from the beginning of the film. He looks like an addict in need of a hit even before the film provides that backstory.
At the rehab centre, Ruben is a fish out of water, unable to understand what’s going on around him since everyone is using sign language. Ahmed becomes hunched over, fidgeting with uncertainty though less severely than earlier. There are also long scenes in which it’s just Ahmed acting against Ahmed, as we watch Ruben cope with sitting in a room alone, managing (or failing to manage) his anger. As Ruben gains more confidence, learning sign language and integrating into the community, Ahmed’s movements become smoother and less jagged, though he never quite recaptures the ease we see in the early moments of the film. It’s a tour de force performance.
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