To give credit where it's due, Sound of Metal gives you a lot of movie for the money: three movies, in fact, by my reckoning. And the first two of them even fit together pretty smoothly. What this third, aberrant movie means for the whole is something we'll get to a bit later, although I regret to say that I don't think it means anything at all good.

But let's stay positive for a while, and in this case, there's something to be pretty terrifically positive about: Riz Ahmed's work in the lead role is a tremendous piece of screen acting, easily one of the best performances of the year, and I don't even mean that in the shitty, backhanded way where 2020 has proven to be uniquely free of particularly impressive work by leading men. It's a work of substantial technical difficulty with a fairly elaborate character arc that demands a lot of very tiny emotional gestures that are meant to be almost completely invisible, in keeping with the character's high-strung discomfort with revealing too much of himself. It's a big showpiece part that gives Ahmed the best chance he's ever had to pay off a full decade and more of doing terrific work in small, frequently unrewarding parts, and if this leads in a straight line to Ahmed getting lots more good roles, then Sound of Metal has to do absolutely not one other thing to justify itself.

Which isn't to say that it doesn't do other things, though I think it would be hard to argue that either the writing or the filmmaking quite live up to Ahmed's live-wire performance. As far as the former goes, brothers Darius and Abraham Marder's script, from a story Darius wrote with Derek Cianfrance, portrays an itinerant pair of musicians in crisis: Ruben (Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are respectively the drummer and singer for Blackgammon, a metal duo, who travel the land in their beloved RV, barely scraping by financially but having such passion for the music and each other that they can ignore it. What they can't ignore is that Ruben has been fumbling about more than usual lately, with muffled ellipsis in his hearing that make it hard to keep up with Lou; then he's finally in a position to get tested, he gets the horrible news that he's lost 75% of his hearing capacity, and he will lose the remaining 25% if he keeps subjecting himself to loud noise. And they don't get much louder than being a metal drummer. Ruben immediately goes into survivalist panic mode, which is an especially bad place for him to be, given his history of substance abuse. Lou finds out what's going on, and she demands that he take this seriously; it's through her intervention that he ultimately finds a space at a rehab facility exclusively for the deaf, run by Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering addict who lost his hearing in the Vietnam war.

That gets us roughly a quarter of the way through the 120-minute feature, and it is certainly the best quarter, with Darius Marder directing Ruben's frantic attempts to keep up the pace of his lifestyle with a jagged rawness that makes the very best use of the film's fairly generic "handheld indie" aesthetic, by marrying the shaggy artlessness of the filmmaking to the character's panic, and the raging energy of his music. The film darts about, leaping from scene to scene and presenting even the relatively quiet moments between Ruben and Lou with an alert nervous energy, as jaggedy as the shuddering of Daniël Bouquet's cinematography. It also does a great thing where it shifts into subjective audio, letting us hear (or not hear) from Ruben's own perspective, with the mismatch between the image and soundtracks knocking the film out of kilter in a way that helps to amplify his panic. The film will, in fact, do this on and off for the entirety of its running time; while I wish it had been more persistent (it's only maybe used about 15 minutes of the whole, I would guess, though I wasn't timing it), to make an even tighter bond between us and the character, it works tremendously well whenever it shows up, especially late in the film.

What trips Sound of Metal up a little bit is that, for all that this is the most electrifying, authentic part of the movie, it's also only really the preamble to the story the film actually wants to tell, and even that wired aesthetic energy is mostly there to set up a contrast for what happens once Ruben arrives at the rehab community, and the film forcibly slows itself down to match how his life has suddenly had a calming quiet forced upon it. The length of scenes is extended, the editing jumps around less, the ambient sounds are more muted. And thus does the film become a combination addiction drama and message movie about deafness, with Joe patiently explaining to Ruben, multiple times, that he's never going to regain his hearing the way he remembers it, so the best thing to do at this point is to rebuild his life in a way that it can still be fulfilling even without sound. I suppose it's down to the individual viewer whether this is actually a problem or not, but I generally preferred the movie when it seemed to be channeling Ahmed's miserable alertness rather than challenging it. Not least because I think there's something inherently more dramatic about a man in terrified denial, funneling all of his existential anguish into art, than there is in either addiction dramas or disability message movies. And while Ahmed's performance is so great that it keeps even the most trite Oscarbait impulses of this middle part of the film feeling honest and tethered to character.

Even Ahmed can't salvage the last turn the film makes, though, where it tips into some completely unimagined new storytelling universe for its final act. To go into details would be unsporting, but it suffice it to say that we learn a new context that makes much of the opening act, with Ruben and Lou eking out a precarious existence that could be utterly devastated by a much smaller health crisis than the one that strikes them, seem sort of strange and nonsensical; it also presents a new interpersonal conflict that feels entirely random and resolved in ways that have nothing to do with any of what Ruben has learned and experienced to this point. I was prepared for a certain kind of generic, paint-by-numbers ending, and I guess it's to the writers' credit that they didn't provide one, but I also can't help but feel like the boring, trite third act I was ready for would have been way less bizarre and out of character than the very arbitrary swerve the film does make. It's not enough to rob Sound of Metal of the strengths it has demonstrated, and Ahmed never gives up on his character for the whole length of the film, but it certainly left me feeling unsatisfied and frankly a little ill-used.