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Make the Case: Riz Ahmed for Best Actor

The ‘Sound of Metal’ star pours himself into his role as a drummer rapidly losing his hearing and turns a pretty good movie into something close to great with a punishing performance

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And then, Riz Ahmed smashes the doughnut. Just pounds the hell out of it. Four quick crushing blows with his right fist: WHAP. Quick pause. WHAP WHAP WHAP. He is sitting at a small table in an otherwise empty room at 5 a.m. with a blank notebook, a pen, a cup of coffee that has now sloshed onto the table, and a doughnut that is now a pulverized heap of crumbs. He feels bad. He gathers up the crumbs and attempts to reassemble the wreckage into a doughnut shape, then smashes it again. WHAP. A few crumbs land on the blank notebook this time. He sweeps them back off. It’s all awfully fastidious, as quick outbursts of Oscar-worthy fury go. But it’s worthy nonetheless.

We are halfway through the alternately dead-silent and punishingly loud 2020 drama Sound of Metal, in which Ahmed plays Ruben, a tremulous, four-years-sober sludge-metal drummer who learns, 15 minutes into the film, that he’s losing his hearing, fast. The deal here, given that you’re watching a six-times-nominated Oscar darling—including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Ahmed, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Sound—is that you’re waiting for Ruben to fly into a screaming and smashing Oscar-clip rage. Which he soon does: His bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), wakes up one morning to find him destroying all the musical gear in their Airstream RV.

Here we go. The screaming. The smashing. Lou with her hands covering her face, shuddering. You’ve seen this movie before. Lou’s pushing Ruben to go to a rural commune for deaf people in recovery, so he can avoid relapse and come to grips with his condition. He refuses. She insists. Cue the wrenching Oscar-clip scene when she gets in a cab and it drives away as he chokes back sobs. You’ve seen that movie, too. Ruben goes to the commune, run by the saintly Joe (Paul Raci, up for Best Supporting Actor), a deaf Vietnam vet who is recovering from alcoholism who pushes Ruben to learn American Sign Language, and also pushes Ruben to get up every morning at 5 and sit in an empty room with a pen and paper and coffee and a doughnut. The pen and paper is just a distraction, if a distraction is required. “There’s nothing that needs to be accomplished in this room,” Joe says, in sign language and also out loud, with a computer monitor glowing between them, displaying the words to Ruben. “All I want you to do is just … sit.”

And then, the next morning, Ruben smashes the doughnut. Which is where I finally bought in—bought into the movie, and more importantly bought into him.

Sound of Metal—directed by Darius Marder, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham—is not quite greater than the sum of its parts, which is no slight to the parts. As nearly all the near-entirely glowing reviews note, the sound design—which plunges us into Ruben’s head with a harrowing mix of piercing feedback, muffled voices, total silence, and even more upsetting noise collages once doctors get involved—is extraordinary, and perhaps the Oscar this movie is most likely to win. Raci, a septuagenarian character actor who IRL performs in a Black Sabbath tribute band called Hands of Doom ASL ROCK, is a fount of ferocious dignity whose patience and tenderness fracture only when Ruben starts treating his hearing loss as an affliction to be cured. The editing sure beats the hell out of Bohemian Rhapsody’s.

But this is Ahmed’s movie, and Ahmed’s triumph even when the pace falters or the melodrama crescendos or the plot beats that arrive as expected (like the pre-doughnut freakouts) rub up uneasily against the expected plot beats that don’t arrive at all (he is no threat to relapse). One great performance can make a bad movie bearable, but it takes one extraordinary performance to make a pretty good movie something close to great.

In an industry with a more progressive and logical definition of the word movie, Ahmed would already have a Best Actor Oscar nomination, if not an outright win, for the feature-length pilot episode of the 2016 HBO limited series The Night Of, in which he played Naz, a mild-mannered Queens striver who borrows his father’s cab and soon finds himself accused of murder after a harrowing series of bad decisions and even worst twists of fate. Naz can only softly tremble as this noose tightens around him, and it’s excruciating how well Ahmed plays that screaming-in-silence helplessness. (He settled for winning an Emmy.) What I’ll say is that Sound of Metal comes way closer to sticking its landing than (lotta foot stuff) The Night Of did. Ruben screams out loud a lot more than Naz did, it’s true, but Ahmed has only gotten better at conveying constant inner turmoil while keeping the award-bait outbursts to a minimum.

Ruben favors bright-blond hair dye and sophomoric tattoos (from the underwear to the giant clown) and a dazzling array of hardcore-punk T-shirts. (He reps G.I.S.M. during his first American Sign Language lesson with some awestruck grade schoolers.) Ahmed, shirtless and wild-eyed, is entirely convincing as a metal drummer for the 10 minutes or so in which he gets to play one. (Ruben and Lou’s band, Blackgammon, is based on the real-life husband-and-wife duo Jucifer, who I’ve seen live and can confirm are stupendously loud; my only note on the music stuff overall is that Blackgammon is a terrible band name.) Beyond that, Ruben is a classic Oscar-bait role, volcanic yet repressed, devastated yet determined.

Ahmed elevates that inherent cliché, though, by somehow making you feel his hopeless struggle to hear the way he used to hear, eyes bugging just so, jaw clenching just so, shoulders slumped just so. Sound of Metal’s pace is somehow too slow and too fast simultaneously: Post-doughnut, Ahmed’s adaptation to the commune, and to sign language, is almost frictionless, but it takes him far too long to realize the pricey cochlear implants he covets won’t bring him anything resembling peace. So the movie mostly just … sits with him. It is a great mercy that Ahmed is such a compelling person to sit with. He forces you into stillness, but a rich and infinitely varied stillness that Joe later describes as “the kingdom of God.”

I’d love for Raci to win his Oscar too, while we’re at it. As an actor, Ahmed is magnetic but also generous, content to let the increasingly nightmarish sound design carry the emotional weight, and let his fellow actors shine. The other award-bait cliché you’re braced for is the tear-stained, bittersweet reunion of Ruben and Lou, who has transformed in Ruben’s absence in a way that’s heartbreaking enough on its own. But Ahmed and Cooke deftly underplay that scene, too, with a shared stillness this time, and a well-deployed “It’s OK” or two. There is crying, yes: theirs and mine. I keep replaying this scene to study Ahmed for signs of capital-A Acting, for contrived pauses and forced facial contortions, but all I see is a guy I’ve already gladly watched desperately brood for hours, and whom I nonetheless hope to watch desperately brood for hours in a great many movies to come.

About that: Ahmed’s not going to win. Chadwick Boseman will, posthumously of course, for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and nobody can be mad at this, beyond the righteous anger that the Academy failed to honor Boseman while he was alive. The final cliché that Sound of Metal expertly subverts is that if you’ve watched enough movies like this, you’re braced for this one to end with Ruben, in strident voice-over, reading the stuff he wrote in that otherwise-empty room, bloodied but unbowed, full of fear but also suffused with voter-friendly hope. Not so. Thank goodness. We never find out what he wrote, because he doesn’t care, and neither should we. Instead, we leave Ahmed in a state of not-unblissful silence. The pen and paper were just if he needed a distraction. The smashed (and restored, and re-smashed) doughnut told us all we needed to know.