Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a heavy rock combo. Lou (Olivia Cooke) is on vocals. They are partners on stage and off - soulmates in sound and recovery.
He is a heroin addict four years clean, she has a history of self-harm.
The band has a nihilist vibe as she screams and roars into a mic accompanied by feedback, dissonance and Ruben's impassioned drumming.
He likes to play shirtless, showing off his heavily tattooed torso with the words Please Kill Me scrawled in capitals across his chest.
They seem pretty hardcore at first, but looks can be deceptive as it quickly becomes apparent they are deeply in love having found a semblance of peace in each other's company.
They're on a never-ending American tour, driving around in an RV that is so cool you immediately think of booking yourself a coast-to-coast driving holiday and then realise you can't because of Covid, but then you have to dream.
They do. Of a new album, of a life together, of the open road.
Ruben loses his hearing.
The doctor doesn't know why, could be the music, could be an autoimmune problem. Either way it isn't coming back and Ruben can't expose what little hearing he has left to any more rock 'n' roll.
Riz Ahmed is exceptional as the thwarted, scared, jumpy Ruben. He plays the character like a champion jockey, one moment he's reining in Ruben's brooding temper just before he explodes, the next he's giving him his head to make a connection with pupils attending a school for deaf children.
His nomination for an Oscar is well-deserved.
Olivia Cooke also turns in a solid performance as Lou, Lauren Ridloff steals the screen as a deaf schoolteacher, and Paul Raci - who is also nominated for an Oscar (supporting actor) - does a fine job as Joe, the shamanic elder statesman and Vietnam veteran running a rural retreat for people who are deaf and have addictions.
Sound of Metal was co-written and directed by Darius Marder, a relative newcomer with a promising future.
At no point does he let you forget this is a film about the sensation of sound, from the ever-present subtitles to the constant switching between audio POVs: complete silence, natural sound, distorted interference. It's unusual and effective and, unsurprisingly, the sound team are also nominated for an Oscar.
It does have shortcomings, although at a gently paced two hours, duration isn't one of them. The plot lacks subtlety and depth. Ruben is taken to the edge but never forced to look over the precipice - instead he is allowed to exist in a comfort zone without the opportunity to fully reveal his character. And the binary position he is put in - either accept and embrace your hearing loss, or try to fix it and push off - is a little simplistic.
But Ahmed's performance rises above any patchiness in the script to make this one of the season's must-see movies.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video from 12 April and released in cinemas from 17 May.
Recent reviews by Will Gompertz:
- Beeple Mania: Is this digital artwork worth $69m? ★★★☆☆
- Is Eddie Murphy's Coming 2 America worth revisiting? ★★☆☆☆
- How Billie Eilish became a Superstar ★★★★☆
- Hymn: Why this bromance deserves a standing ovation ★★★★☆
- Zendaya & Washington in the film that's got everyone talking ★★☆☆☆
- Read All About It with Tom Hanks! ★★★☆☆
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