Sometimes a film gets up a head of steam that’s inexplicable. Sound of Metal is one such film, garlanded in critical buzz, a Twitter favourite and six Oscar nominations, only one of which I understand.
Perhaps it’s the actor, perhaps it’s the story. This is Riz Ahmed’s moment. Having been remarkable since coming to prominence in the Michael Winterbottom film Road to Guantanamo in 2005, Ahmed has been blisteringly good in one thing after another (The Night Of, The Sisters Brothers, Mogul Mowgli to name but three). He’s again remarkable here, as Ruben, the drummer in a metal duo suddenly losing his hearing. One moment it’s crystal clear, the next it’s about three quarters gone, just like that. This drama follows Ruben’s journey, into the world of deafness and into the deaf community, fighting (often literally) through the five stages of grief and coming out the other end.
In great physical shape – six pack, lean and fit – with his hair bleach-blond, his body a mass of tattoos, Ahmed looks and acts the part. He’s also particularly good as a man suddenly thrust into his own space, without the support of others, like girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), or the music he’s been living for, and through. He’s unmoored, lost. Wide-eyed with fear for much of the time, Ahmed is also brilliant in tiny ways, like the way Ruben behaves when he’s on his own, the funny faces we pull and noises we make when we think we’re unobserved.
But, good though Ahmed is, he was better in Mogul Mowgli, also as a dude in distress, a rapper struck by a degenerative disease. Sickness is always Oscar bait, but why Ahmed gets the nod for this rather than that I don’t know. Both qualify as 2020 movies. Perhaps it was the fact that he learned the drums and American Sign Language for this role. Putting the hours in always goes down well with the Academy.
Paul Raci as the leader of the deaf community also got the Oscar nod. And this one is deserved. Raci has to do a lot with a little, both acting as an emotional anchor and explaining what’s going on in Ruben’s new world of sign language and mutual support out on this peculiarly well appointed ranch where this bizarrely good-natured community offer succour. As Joe, the ex-alcoholic who lost his hearing in Vietnam, Raci also has a lot of backstory to get across, as well as a stern Old Testament attitude towards technological fixes for deafness. Joe is against cochlear implants, the serpent calling throughout Sound of Metal. Joe also might not be a nice guy deep down, and Raci gets that across too.
The Best Achievement in Film Editing nomination. I would have thought Nomadland, no? (Post Oscars update: No, Steve, no – it went to Sound of Metal).
Sound Design. I bet an awful lot of sound designers are pulling the wha? face over this one. Again, Sound of Metal’s sound design is incredibly effective but it’s a squeaky-wheel nomination, an obvious attention-grabber. “Ruben’s hearing goes on the fritz and the world goes all muffly” accounts for a large chunk of what the five-strong team of nominees achieve. A different sort of muffly wouldn’t have made an awful lot of difference.
Best Original Screenplay? In one form or another the screenplay to this has been knocking about for a while. It was originally going to be a Derek Cianfrance movie but eventually the director of The Place Beyond the Pines acquiesced in Darius Marder (who’d been co-writing it with Cianfrance) taking it on solo. Marder also directs. It’s a fine screenplay, with a boy wins girl/boy loses girl structure… with a twist, and an emotional arc running through the aforesaid five stages of grief. But having watched Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove the night before, where every minor character existed as an individual, it was an interesting change of gears to follow up with a film where no minor character has any three-dimensionality, and even Lou is barely registering, no matter how much oomph Olivia Cooke puts into it, bleached eyebrows and all.
Best Motion Picture of the Year is the only one left. Given that Nomadland, Minari and The Father are also in this category, all force ten belters, I’d be very surprised if Sound of Metal won through. But then merit and the Oscars don’t always rub along too well.
Sound of Metal is a fine film but there was an “is that it?” question mark hanging in the air once it was all over. Whether you like it or not (and I did) it is its (and Ahmed’s) sheer determination that is the most impressive thing about it. And maybe that’s why it got all the Academy votes. Somewhere, Daniel Day Lewis is nodding.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021