Sound of Metal

Ruben at the drum kt

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.

Paul Raci as Joe
Joe – not a fan of cochlear implants

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.

Sound of Metal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Little Fish

Olivia Cooke and Jack O'Connell

Not to be confused with the 2005 movie of the same name starring Cate Blanchett, Little Fish puts a twist on one of the those big films about two people in love told against a torrid backdrop of war, ditching raging conflict in favour of a global pandemic. In early 2021 this sounds very timely, but the story the film is based on is ten years old. In any case the “torrid backdrop” isn’t the focus here. This is a film for those in love with love.

The meet-cute is bare bones. Emma (Olivia Cooke) meets Jude (Jack O’Connell) on a beach. They stare at each, they smile at each other, they chat to each other, they’re clearly both instantly smitten. It is genuinely cute.

In traditional romantic love story style of the sort that comes in pink covers, he’s a buccaneering individualist, she’s in the caring professions. Photographer/vet – you can work out which is which.

Also in traditional romantic love story – or even Love Story – style, one of them is going to get ill and/or die, the sweeter the love, the deeper the loss.

The second big introduction is to the pandemic – NIA it’s called, Neuro-Inflammatory Affliction, a disease that’s wiping the minds of different people in different ways. Some just get a bit scatty, others forget so completely what they are about that there are bizarre effects – like the marathon runner who simply forgets to stop running. But for the most part NIA’s progress seems to mimic Alzheimer’s, a progressive loss of memory to the point where the identity of the sufferer begins to fall away – we are, to a large extent, our memories.

Emma and Jude in a pet shot
Emma, Jude and a lot of little fish

So of course one of these two lovely people is going to get NIA and the other is going to watch impotently, metaphorically offering up burnt offerings to the gods and reading all the books on the subject in an attempt to keep it at bay. The sufferer, meanwhile, is going to dissemble like crazy, hiding the effects of the disease’s progress via an escalating series of cribs, tricks, cheats and lies

Though Little Fish is interested in the lovers rather than the pandemic, around the edges director Chad Hartigan conjures up a pungent world of disinformation, fear and hysteria, quack cures and weird coalitions of the ignorant. Some of the superficialities are now familiar – people in masks – but most of it is a reminder that Covid-19, while bad, could have been a lot worse.

The other world Hartigan conjures is that of the indie romance – music, tattoos and big moments in small places. Jude asks Emma to marry him in a pet shop, where the two of them are watching the little fish that gives the film its title. It’s a goldfish, a creature not associated with a prodigious memory. A joke, surely, in a film not full of them.

This is a world of shallow-focus photography, which does double duty in suggesting both the warm, fuzzy and “us”-focused nature of the first burst of love, but also the soft edges of memory loss. Keegan DeWitt’s gentle, lilting score works the same territory. Most of the music in Little Fish has the treble turned down.

It’s set in Canada, I think, though the concentration on the two main characters is so tight that we could be almost anywhere. The acting is as it should be: intense and fierce, the more so, perhaps, because the film stands or falls on the performances. Which is another way of saying that not an awful lot happens, and what does happen plays out at its own unhurried pace.

Cooke – about to step into a role in the Game of Thrones sequel House of the Dragon (she’s not a million miles away in looks from Emilia Clarke) – will probably attract some Throners. But, be warned, ye Goths and other dark-clothed lovers of pandemic disaster fare, this is not the movie for you.

The film it’s closest to is another two-hander, Perfect Sense, in which Ewan McGregor and Eva Green played lovers being slowly deprived of one sense after the other. Barely seen and critically cold-shouldered, the 2011 film now seems ahead of its time. Anyone for a pandemic double bill?

Little Fish – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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The Signal

Brenton Thwaites in The Signal


Well, I loved this. A confident exercise in genre and genre misdirection that has the balls to invoke The Matrix, Close Encounters, and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. So, yes, it’s about aliens and a gigantic conspiracy and there’s a lot of white light bathing its clinical setups, and it cost not very much at all.


And the first bit of misdirection comes at the very first shot – a boy, a girl, his buddy, dappled sunlight, a piano on the soundtrack. It looks like we’re in torridly romantic Nicholas Sparks territory and we can only be minutes away from someone coming down with a terminal disease, especially as Nic, our lead, is on crutches, as a result of some not-entirely specified mishap – an injury? Cancer? Is he a soldier?


No, Nic’s a computer hacker, we find out early on, who along with his buddy Jonah has been delving into areas he shouldn’t and has got someone somewhere out in cyberspace very angry. None of this actually matters much, or seems to, because only a couple of minutes after this, the gooey proto-romance which morphed into a wannabe Matrix has changed again, into a haunted-house horror as the two guys break into a deserted house, and director William Eubank shows he’s also adept at making things spooky.


All a preamble. The film proper starts with Nic waking up from loss of consciousness in some aseptic facility, where everyone is dressed in hazmat suits and Laurence Fishburne is looming over him asking questions about “the signal”. The gist of it is that Nic, Jonah and Haley have been abducted by aliens, possibly, and are now OK, safe and sound, being looked after by the government, who are dressed like spacemen just as a precaution. Possibly, though explanations are thin on the ground. All the better.


This nightmarish vision of loss of control works better than I’m able to describe it partly because its cast is so good: former Home & Away heartthrob Brenton Thwaites is perfect casting as the fiercely intelligent MIT student Nic, a slightly more feral Channing Tatum with soulful eyes, a perfect profile, yet approachably blokey. A star, I’d be willing to bet. Underused Beau Knapp is also just right as Nic’s wingman, and Olivia Cooke brings what dignity she can to even less of a role for her, as the largely passive girlfriend.


Out on the ring road of stardom is Lin Shaye, who’s now become something of a go-to actor for wingnut roles (see Insidious), and does a magnificent few minutes as a local Christian fundamentalist who picks up the gang when they make a break for it.


As for Laurence Fishburne, he seems to relish rehashing a version of Morpheus, the glacial, slightly amused delivery, and the boom, of course the boom.


The entire film revolves around the true nature of Fishburne’s Dr Damon character, it becomes clear early on. And of course I’m not going to tell you whether he’s the good guy or bad guy. In fact to tell you any more than I already have – or that most of the film takes place in this facility, where there are a number of shocking reveals – would ruin everything. What I can say is that to that basic Matrix/Close Encounters/Cube mood board, you could add a bit of Attack the Block attitude and some of the dipshit conspiracy theorising of The Banshee Chapter, and that Nima Fakhrara’s Mogwai-esque soundtrack of Theremin squawks and aortal rumbles hugely contributes to the dread atmosphere that Eubank keeps alive right to the last minute.


And if there’s a lesson The Signal could teach other films like it – apart from “make sure you’ve got a good story to tell” – it’s to use special effects sparingly. That way they remain special. As is almost all of this film. Prepare to be amazed.



The Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2014