The term "Oscar bait" is one of the more deeply cynical notions tossed around by film critics and — increasingly — audiences. There's something smugly dismissive about it, certainly, and its rise to prominence in recent years doesn't reflect any uptick in one specific kind of cinematic performance. After all, Hollywood's been cranking out films featuring actors nobly struggling with various physical and emotional challenges since its inception.
No, I suspect the reason has more to do with the fact that the machinations of studios' Oscar campaigns — which were never what you'd call coy — have become a hugely public, multimillion-dollar spectacle, impossible to ignore. In this environment, to dub a performance "Oscar bait" is a cheap, unearned way to adopt the mien of the world-weary Hollywood insider, to roll one's eyes at a film by tarring the actor's performance, and the studio's breathless PR flackery behind it, with the same brush.
Surely we can agree that there exists an element, a sliver of truth to the idea that certain performances play directly into the Academy's historical tendency to reward actors for assaying characters living with disability in a manner meant to inspire and uplift, featuring scripts that reduce said characters to nobly suffering archetypes.
Darius Marder's Sound of Metal is emphatically not such a film, and Riz Ahmed's performance as Ruben, a punk-metal drummer who rapidly loses his hearing, is not such a performance.
There is sentiment here, but no sentimentality, no reaching for unearned emotion, no need to couch Ruben as a subject of our condescending pity, or blanket praise.
Credit Marder's script (which he co-wrote with his brother Abraham), which quickly establishes Ruben as a man convinced he can "fix" himself — who downplays what's happening to him and treats his hearing loss as a bump in the road. In early scenes between Ruben and his band-mate girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), we get a pretty good sense why: Both are in recovery from addiction, and they seem to have replaced the rush of the needle with the rush of performing, and the easy romantic chemistry between them. When his hearing loss threatens both of those things, we understand why Ruben is so reluctant to accept his new reality, even if we know his attempts to resist it can lead nowhere good.
Ahmed's inward, soulful yet diamond-hard performance isn't about struggle, or suffering, or nobility, or uplift, and it's not presented for the hearing community to find cozy inspiration in. It's about a man living in a false belief, bargaining with his body to return to the life he's known.
As intense as Ahmed can get, Paul Raci, as Joe, the leader of a remote rehab facility for the Deaf that Ruben (eventually) checks-in to, can be as still. Raci is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), and he invests his performance with an empathetic grace, knowing patience and understanding that's active, not passive. Which is likely why the film's most moving moment occurs in one of its quietest scenes, as Joe reacts to a choice Ruben has made with a decision as heartbreaking as it is inevitable.
Nicolas Becker's sound design effortlessly and un-showily takes us in and out of Ruben's head throughout the film to experience the world as he does; we're right there with him as his initial confusion and panic give way to anger and frustration as he attempts to navigate a hearing world that refuses to make even the simplest of allowances to him.
Will there be those who slap the "Oscar bait" label on Ahmed's performance? Sure. But that's a reaction to the subject, and the broad outlines of the script, not what Ahmed is doing here, which remains raw and real and small — exactly the opposite of the tidy, contrived and falsely triumphant performances that have taken home Oscars in years past. It's been an odd year for film, however. Maybe odd enough to shake the Academy out of old patterns, and acknowledge a performance that focuses on — that lives in — uncomfortable truths, instead of heartening fables.
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