Special Agent Cooper’s review published on Letterboxd:
On one hand, it's pretty shocking to see that such a confidently presented and steady film is actually the feature debut for director Darius Marder. On the other hand, it's almost expected that this could be the case when a film feels so unique and fresh. This is a viewing experience so intimate that you might feel almost voyeuristic while watching. This is down to a few things mostly: the cinematography style, a decidedly naturalistic tone that almost feels like a documentary at times, sound design that is closely tailored to put you in the protagonist's head, and a very strong and layered starring performance by Riz Ahmed.
Ahmed's humanizing performance of a talented but troubled outsider (first within mainstream society and then once again within a deaf community) is 100% Oscar contention worthy, without question. There are plenty of other reasons to see this film (Olivia Cooke good as usual, strong direction, inventive technical filmmaking, powerful story), but honestly, Ahmed's take is a strong enough reason, even on its own, to give this a shot.
Performances apart from that of Ahmed? Anyone who knows me knows that I am also a fan of the typically wonderful Olivia Cooke. I have no idea how they made her look so haggard at the beginning of this movie, with bleached eyebrows and bad skin makeup, but her inner beauty really shines through regardless. She plays Riz's partner (in band and in life) very well here. Her good performance is overshadowed a bit by Riz's lead work, but she's also convincing every step of the way, as both characters have to traverse such a terrifiying, life-changing situation. Paul Raci also provides a very steady, calming presence as the man tasked with helping Ahmed's character adjust to deaf life and in a bit of a father figure typed role. Most of the rest of the cast is made up of real-life deaf actors, which is pretty cool to see, in terms of representation. Apart from Paul Raci and Lauren Ridloff, I believe most of the actors are either newcomers or amateurs, but they aren't really asked to do any heavy lifting and ultimately fill their roles nicely. If anything, having so many "real lifers" act mostly lowkey and how they would in real life helps lend to that genuine and intimate feel of the film.
While I thankfully never developed any real hearing issues, there is another dimension of resonance to this film for me. I spent many years both drumming in ensembles and playing guitar for a few different metal bands that played a lot of really loud shows/practices in little echo-laden indoor bars and houses. Musicians (and even normal audience listeners in small venue inside shows): ALWAYS WEAR HEARING PROTECTION WHEN POSSIBLE at shows/practices. You'd be surprised what a pair of cymbals night after night for a couple hours can do to wipe out the upper frequencies of your hearing range, and the rest will follow. I've had many a night/morning of tinnitus ringing in my past, so once I realized just how much I could be potentially ruining my ears, I was quick to fix this with using earplugs whenever possible.
As a musician and music fanatic, there's truly nothing more frightening to me than the idea of losing the one thing that connects me to that world. Even in its use as a secondary plot device in Baby Driver, the idea of tinnitus and then hearing loss was pretty scary to experience as a viewer. To see this be a focus of another strong film with even more serious dramatic inclincation was pretty brutal. Honestly, you could label this one as "psychological horror" for me, hahaha. I can't say I loved the absolute resolution for the protagonist, but I can say it was well executed and I understand why the writers would go that route. Go see it. Easily one of the highlight releases of a pretty light 2020.
P.S.... I also just read that Riz Ahmed specifically learned sign language for this role and took 6 months of drum courses. That's serious dedication. I am a drummer, and there's some pretty advanced stuff going on there musically. Just another reason that I think he has a very strong shot at winning the best actor award this year.