Great films are remembered for their acting, their cinematography, their visual effects, or even their editing, but how many movies are remembered for their sound design? A most underappreciated craft is brought to the fore in “Sound of Metal,” a dazzling new drama about a drummer struggling to accept his hearing loss.
Riz Ahmed, best known from the HBO mini-series “The Night Of,” stars as Ruben, a musician who loses everything when he loses his hearing. A recovering addict, Ruben has constructed a compact life that exists almost entirely in his motor home, where he lives with his girlfriend and musical partner Lou (Olivia Cooke). They travel the country in it for their road gigs, and it’s stuffed with recording equipment so they can make records in between shows. It’s a life built snugly for two, designed perhaps to keep chaos at bay.
Ruben’s sudden hearing loss leaves him unable to work – a doctor tells him the first thing he must do is preserve what little hearing he has left – and brings him to a home for deaf addicts that doubles as a school for children with hearing loss. The proprietor is Joe (Paul Raci), whose weary eyes and kindness-with-accountability disposition seem to account for a lifetime of poor choices. Some residents at the home are permanent, while others come and go. Ruben resists being there at all, especially since Lou is forbidden from staying with him, but he has no choice. Without his hearing, his old life doesn’t work, and he must build a new one from scratch.
It’s a well-observed character study about a man slowly coming to grips with his disability, and director Darius Marder conveys Ruben’s experience through his thoughtful modulation of the film’s sound. When we’re inside his head, the world is reduced to muted, unintelligible tones, but Marder smartly weaves in and out of Ruben’s perspective to keep the viewer abreast of his inner life without losing track of the broader story. Trapped by sudden silence, the fear and loneliness in Ahmed’s eyes register even more deeply when we’re reminded of what he’s missing.
Marder seems to have done his homework, and “Sound of Metal” also works as an immersion into a deaf community, showing the nuances and idiosyncrasies that an outsider observer would miss. There’s a lovely moment shared between Ruben and one of the young students on a playground, in which they put their ears to a metal slide and make vibrations for each other. I was also struck by a group dinner at the home, with the guests signing quickly at the table, having multiple conversations at once. The hands are flying, so a drink inevitably gets knocked over. Among hearing people, this usually creates a panic or embarrassment, but here it’s treated so casually you get the sense it happens at every meal.
With the film still so reliant on conveying Ruben’s experience, Ahmed’s brilliant performance is absolutely crucial. Ahmed is blessed with a compelling face; angular and dark, with wide child-like eyes, he could easily coast on a recessive performance, but he willingly dives into Ruben’s world. Forced into a massive life change, the character has wild emotional swings, and Ahmed nails it all: the frightened rabbit stare, the sudden fits of rage, the heartbreaking loss, and even the ecstasy of being accepted into a new family. It’s a breathtaking performance that captures the rainbow of human experience.
The rest of the cast rises to his level. As his girlfriend, Olivia Cooke gives a masterclass in reacting. Early in the film, when Ruben is in denial about how much his hearing loss will change his life, Lou sees both the reality of their situation and his terror at the consequences. She makes decisions he’s too scared to consider, and Cooke blends strength and compassion into one all-powerful force. It’s riveting. The characters at the home are played mostly by first-time actors, real members of the deaf community, and it shows. With the lived experiences of deafness, they provide a naturalism that imbues the film with a relaxed, even playful tone that carries it through its difficult subject matter.
Intimate and illuminating, “Sound of Metal” ultimately pulls off a tricky balancing act, telling a story about both an individual and a community, an inner world and a chosen family. Guided by the filmmaker’s curiosity, it takes us into the unknown and finds redemption amidst the chaos in our willingness to share the silence.
“Sound of Metal” is available on Amazon Prime Video.