Paul Raci makes a massive impression in Sound of Metal, the debut directorial feature from screenwriter Darius Marder (The Place Beyond The Pines). The film is featuring heavily in ‘awards chatter’ for lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays a heavy-metal drummer who rather suddenly loses his hearing, but mark my words, Raci is going to start – pardon the pun – making noise. His performance is an apt use of that critical cliché, a ‘revelation’.
The film itself mashes up two pretty conventional sub-genres – those of ‘dealing with sudden disability’ and ‘rehab’ – without subverting either nor adding anything fantastically new, except a highly specific sound design that strives mightily to give us a simulacrum of what Ahmed’s character, Ruben, is hearing and experiencing. That sound design is the other element of the film being talked about for big awards, but again, I’m laying my money on Raci to step forth and start scooping up Supporting Actor statues. He plays the cultish leader of a community for deaf addicts (Ruben’s a four-year clean junkie) with absolute authority, compassion, empathy and integrity. Since, despite having a true ‘character actor’ face, Raci is simply not that well known (and wasn’t to me), he comes across as one hundred percent the real deal, as though Marder had found this actual man and had him play himself. Raci was raised by deaf parents so his signing is unassailable, even as he himself is not deaf. It’s perfect casting resulting in a perfect performance.
An indie film with wide appeal, Sound of Metal hardly re-invents the wheel, but it’s got a lot of integrity and heart, and is well worth your two hours. Ahmed is indeed very, very good, as is Olivia Cooke in an underwritten role as his girlfriend; late in the film, a major international star makes an appearance that’ll make your eyes pop wide open.
Sometimes something wonderful comes right out of left field. Andrew Patterson, an Oklahoma-based local commercials producer, self-financed and began shooting The Vast of Night, an homage to the kind of giddy, upbeat, weirdo tales you’d get on The Twilight Zone, in 2016. Supposedly rejected by eighteen film festivals before premiering at 2019’s Slamdance, winning the Audience Award, and now available on Amazon, his über-indie “look to the skies” fantasia is a precise little gem, exquisitely conceived.
It’s the 50s, in a small town in New Mexico, on a Friday night, and while the town-folk are all attending the basketball game at the high school, the local radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and the town’s switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) stumble upon the possibility that extraterrestrials are hovering in local skies.
Patterson makes big choices and commits to them whole-heartedly. His film is ingeniously paced and structured, alternating bustling whip-crack dialogue with quiet, expressive monologues, and long single close-ups with the film’s most thrilling and virtuosic stylistic gambit, pulsing sequences sending the camera zooming at knee-height throughout the town to the gorgeously evocative score. Essentially, Patterson is constantly alternating stillness with frenzy, and it makes his ninety minutes feel like fifty.
There’s an awful lot of Spielberg in Patterson’s tale (as there was in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8) and cynics may dismiss The Vast of Night as that 90s relic, the ‘calling-card film’. I don’t see it that way; rather, as one Oklahoman’s magnum opus, a pure work of passionate personal art made entirely outside the system, entirely to its creator’s tune, and entirely to their credit.
There’s a sub-genre of dark comedy that, dramatically, is a no-brainer: someone in a group, however small, of relatively innocent people, kind-of accidentally kills someone; the group agrees to cover up the crime (and, usually, help dispose of the body); and then all members of the group face three ever increasing pressures: the fear of being found out (and arrested), their own moral conscience, and the disintegration of the group’s resolve. It’s a superb dramatic engine: the structure is solid, the stakes are high, and the conflict is inherent. Some of the classic examples include Shallow Grave, Very Bad Things and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Blow The Man Down’s point of difference is its milieu, which is wintry coastal Maine, on the North-Eastern US seaboard, in a fishing community. Assumedly touristy by summer, it’s fishermen and locals in the off-season, and the filmmakers, Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, utilise a chorus of fishermen singing stunningly beautiful sea-shanties to comment on the action, to great effect. I heard an interview with them where they revealed that they were obsessed with watching The Wicker Man (1973) while shooting their film, and that movie’s sense of weird isolation and creepy local colour generously infuses their work.
It’s not nearly as well scripted, or ingeniously directed, as the examples above, but the milieu definitely offers its own rewards, as does the supporting cast of exemplary female character actors led by June Squibb and Margo Martindale. It’s borrowing from tropes you’ve seen before, but shuffles and deals them fresh.