A sensory overload, Sound of Metal is one of the most fascinating films you’ll see all year. Even when Darius Marder‘s lengthy character drama isn’t quite working – a problem that persists in the final act – it’s always engaging. Sound of Metal puts you in its main character’s headspace more intensely than most movies, fully drawing us into the psyche of heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed, delivering a powerhouse performance). After a life spent slamming away on a drum kit, Ruben suddenly loses his hearing, changing his life dramatically, even drastically. And we’re with him every step of the way, wrapped up in his journey.
To adequately portray Ruben’s deafness, Marder and a fully stacked sound department burrow deep into an aural landscape – and lack thereof. Long stretches of the film have us literally in Ruben’s headspace, the sounds of the film around him muted, muffled, and altogether blocked-out. Sound of Metal is also close-captioned – not just subtitled – in an attempt to create a film designed for both hearing and deaf audiences. The experience can often be overwhelming – the very first scene of the film features Ruben practically obliterating a drumset during a concert, only to soon give way to scenes scored by ringing and then flat-out silence. With this approach, Sound of Metal has the genuine effect of drawing us into Ruben’s world.
Ruben is a recovering addict who spends his days with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), the singer of his band with past emotional demons of her own. The two are incredibly close and wholly dependant on one another, but when Ruben’s hearing loss kicks in, the relationship becomes distorted and confusing. Ruben wants to keep on touring even though his doctor advises against it, Lou thinks it’s a terrible idea. The two of them see what they think is a light at the end of a tunnel: cochlear implant surgery; surgery that they both assume will magically, and perfectly, restore Ruben’s hearing to what it was. But the surgery is expensive, and not a simple matter.
With the threat of Ruben’s addictions looming, his sponsor sends him to a deaf community run by Joe (Paul Raci, in a warm, funny performance). The community is for deaf individuals who are also recovering addicts, and the hope is that they’ll both help Ruben with his addictions, while also teaching him how to live as a deaf person. Ruben is standoffish – he doesn’t want to learn how to be deaf; he wants to make it all go away. Yet he ends up in the community anyway, while Lou returns to live with her estranged father in France.
Ruben’s time in the community makes for the most successful segment of Sound of Metal. Marder is content to let the days drift by with no real sense of urgency – there’s no ticking clock; no ultimatum. Ruben is going through a major change and learning how to navigate a new world, and the story takes us right along with him. The down-to-earth, realistic depiction of community is refreshing in its earnestness. It’s aided by sharp cinematic touches: a scene where Ruben sits at a dinner table with other deaf residents, all of them conversing via sign language while the sound of the film is turned down, only for the camera to then cut to a wider angle with the sound back on, revealing how loud and noisy the conversation is – silverware clanging, hands slamming down on the table top – even though no words are being vocalized.
All of these moments devoted to characters simply interacting with each other from day to day hammer home that Sound of Metal isn’t interested in plot, or even story for that matter. Instead, it wants its individuals to be the story, and Marder has put together a fine cast who all do strong work, even those with limited screentime. This is Ahmed’s movie, though, and the actor gives the best performance of his career here. Ahmed is all coiled rage, simmering anger, and heartbreaking self-loathing. He’s both furious and confused at his current situation, and the actor balances these emotions with both long stretches of jittery contemplation and sudden outbursts of shocking violence.
Sound of Metal‘s lack-of-interest in plot is never clearer than its final act, in which Ruben makes a big decision, and eventually reunites with Lou overseas. One gets the sense that all of this is unfolding simply because the story is insisting something has to happen, and while the interactions between Ahmed and Cooke are tender, this section of the film fails to live up to the far more successful earlier scenes. Thankfully, those previous moments are enough to engross you in Ruben’s journey, and all the silence therein.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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