Top Ten Movies of 2020 — Number Five

In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed melts into the lead role with an intensity that’s almost unnerving. Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, the drummer in a blistering hard rock band called Blackgammon. Night after night, he sits behind his kit, slapping out thunderous beats, as his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou Berger (Olivia Cooke), howls and snarls at the front of the stage. One morning, Ruben discovers the constant, self-inflicted assault on his ears has caused severe damage. His hearing is eroding so rapidly that he is effectively deaf, the outside symphony of sounds transformed into an indecipherable muddle. The film follows Ruben as he grudgingly takes up residence in a shelter for deaf individuals who are also recovering addicts, in part because of Lou’s worries that Ruben, with his own troubled history of substance abuse, is likely to relapse in response to anger and frustration he feels as he struggles with this new physical challenge. As directed by Darius Marder (who also wrote the film, collaborating with Derek Cianfrance on the story and Abraham Marder on the script), Sound of Metal has a bruising honesty and a piercing certainty in its narrative. Ruben is emotionally wounded and precariously complex, his resentments and flares of pride — both positive and negative pride — intermingling like murky waters. Ahmed intricately realized the character, fearless in showing his flaws precisely because that is what will make the travails and minor triumphs all the more powerful. It is a film shorn of sentiment, earning its impact through observation rather than manipulation. Determinedly understated, Sound of Metal is also a marvel of inventive craft, especially in its sound design that conveys what it’s like when a fundamental human sense falls away, and the ways it can be returned in an highly imperfect state. In performance and storytelling, Marder’s film is a feat of profound cinematic empathy.

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