With this performance as a drummer who loses his hearing, Riz Ahmed becomes the first British actor of Pakistani descent – and the first Muslim – to be nominated for an acting Oscar.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the increased diversity awareness of awards bodies – he’s BAFTA-nominated, too – and their voting members this year. I like to think it’s just a bloody good performance.
What matters is that the film and the role have not fallen on deaf ears. Sound of Metal is a cool-looking indie but what were once seen as constraints for lower-budget productions have now become credentials – it got six Oscar nods altogether.
Riz Ahmed – who went the same school as me and is, I can vouch, a thoroughly lovely and thoughtful chap – is one of those actors you may have seen without realising it. He has worked steadily to break out of any stereotypical casting, having played his share of Arab terrorists (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Road to Guantanamo, Four Lions) but really broke through in the TV series The Night Of, for which he won an Emmy in 2017, as well as huge box office success in Star Wars spin off Rogue One.
So it’s a kind of triumph, and greatly to Riz and film’s credit, that ethnicity and colour aren’t even referred to in Sound of Metal, in which he plays Ruben, who tours America with his lover and lead singer Lou, played by the excellent British actress Olivia Cooke. They’re a White Stripes-style combo called Blackgammon and spend their nights in a camper van, driving to a new gig, a new city, the next day.
One such night, after another thumping gig, Ruben loses his hearing and, pretty quickly, because Lou fears he’ll relapse into drug use, finds himself in a rural retreat for deaf recovering addicts, rock star life over. But can Ruben fully adjust, or will his addictive tendencies push him to short cuts and surgery?
It’s an unusually specific situation, giving rise to a highly unusual and therefore distinctive drama, as Ruben is forced to learn sign language and confront his new circumstances under the patient guidance of camp leader Joe (played by Paul Raci, also Oscar and BAFTA nominated, for a remarkable supporting performance of striking calm and mystery.)
And Ahmed is just as fantastic to watch. Behind the tough metal exterior, he exudes vulnerability from frightened, darting eyes set in long, soft lashes. It’s a whole level of suspense just looking at him, never quite knowing what emotional responses he’ll give you. Maybe it’s some kind of intense, compensatory reaction to Ruben’s deafness, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
There’s a tender love story in here, between Ruben and Lou, but it’s chiefly a story about a young man learning to love himself, and it’s all the more riveting for it. For so much of the film, you’re in Ruben’s head, feeling his frustration and his deafness, looking for a way out yet discovering a raw power of the sound of silence.