In what might be one of the coolest opening sequences of the year, the beginning of Sound of Metal sees Riz Ahmed’s Ruben drum as if his life depends on it, backing up Olivia Cooke’s Lou on guitar and vocals in their punk-metal band. It all feels like a full-on assault on the senses—but especially on the ears. The two also happen to be a couple, so when Ruben wakes up the next morning in their RV it’s next to Lou; that’s the first time he has the great displeasure of his hearing going intermittently in and out on him. During the next gig, his hearing cuts out entirely during the set, and he’s barely able to finish. Not surprisingly, when he finally makes it to a specialist, he’s told that his hearing is deteriorating and his days of working in a noise-heavy environment are over. That doesn’t sit well with Ruben because it means the end of the band and possibly this very necessary relationship with Lou.
As we soon find out, Ruben had a heroin addiction that ended right around the time Lou entered his life, and now she’s afraid he’ll go back to drugs as a way of dealing with this colossal disappointment. She forces him to call his sponsor, who in turn finds him a secluded sober house that caters exclusively to deaf addicts, and while Ruben has no interest in being there, he stays when Lou promises to wait for him while he’s there. He makes it clear that once he gets the money, he’ll be getting a surgery to put in an implant that will restore a portion of his hearing, and he assumes that he can then resume the band. But first, he has to learn to be a functioning deaf person. Paul Raci plays Joe, the house manager who interviews Ruben, explains the rules of the house, and makes it clear that Ruben must follow those rules and embrace the program or he can’t stay. So the first thing he must do is learn sign language by attending an elementary school class for deaf children (which makes for quite the visual with Ruben in his heavy metal t-shirts and dyed platinum blonde hair).
First-time feature writer/director Darius Marder (who was a working editor before this), working from a story credited to filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, does something remarkable in almost every scene of Sound of Metal, particularly when it comes to his use of sound. Quite frequently, we are put in the head (and ears) of Ruben, so we hear when sounds begins to cut out or how faint most sounds are to him once his hearing is largely gone. In one particularly emotional moment, he’s sitting at a dining room table at the home watching those around him sign frantically all at once and somehow communicating clearly with each other. He doesn’t understand what they’re saying yet, but the filmmaker has taken the sound out of the scene entirely, making the moment look almost celebratory. But then he changes camera angles, putting us at a slight distance from the action and turning the sound back on so that we hear the banging on the table to cause vibrations to get someone’s attention, the clatter of the silverware, and the occasional talking that some engage in as they’re signing. It’s clear the entire moment makes Ruben feel left out and very alone, and that seems to fuel his resolve to learn to sign as quickly as possible.
Rather than push away from the program, Ruben embraces all of its elements, even when Joe asks him to spend a portion of each day isolated and writing down his thoughts when he feels restless. Of course, Ruben breaks the rules a bit as well, using the house computer when he isn’t allowed, and he’s able to communicate with and keep track of Lou’s movements, discovering she moved to Paris to live with her father (a surprise appearance by Mathieu Amalric).
Sound of Metal could have easily played as an overly sentimental work about a man with a disability he wants to conquer, but Marder has a strong understanding of the way that many in the deaf community don’t view their deafness as something that needs to be overcome or fixed. That makes Ruben’s decision to get the implant surgery feel like something of a betrayal to many, especially Joe, who was hoping Ruben would stay on as an instructor since he seems to have a real knack for teaching and connecting with others. The film frequently zigs when you expect it to zag, giving Ahmed the chance to really shine in a way I’ve never seen him do before this. The sequence in which he finally gets his implant turned on is both thrilling and heartbreaking for reasons I won’t go into. But the look on his face in this moment communicates a thousand different emotions at once, and some of them are quite devastating.
The final moments of the movie take place in Paris, as Ruben wants to surprise Lou with his implants and discuss getting the band back in shape again. But after just a few hours with her, he knows that something has changed, and he adjusts his expectations accordingly, ending the film with an unforgettable moment that could be interpreted as either hopeful or desperate. Sound of Metal is unique in the way it treats the reality of living with a hearing impairment. The residents at the house don’t think they are special; they see themselves as normal, functioning human beings, whose only issue in need of conquering is substance abuse. It’s a righteously superb work, powered by Ahmed’s fearless performance and commitment to playing an often misguided man, forced to shift the direction of his life in ways he’d never anticipated. He rolls with the punches but he also makes many a misstep. It hurts to watch him sometimes, but it’s also inspiring.
The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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