A heavy metal drummer with four years of sobriety under his belt, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is doing pretty okay. He and his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), form a duo called Blackgammon and they live in their vintage Airstream, driving to gigs and rocking out. Until, that is, Ruben’s hearing suddenly gives out in the middle of the show. There were warning signs, ignored of course, and now Ruben has lost two-thirds of his hearing and must protect what remains. Which means: no more drumming in a heavy metal group. Fearing a relapse, which seems inevitable given Ruben’s rage and fear after his diagnosis, Lou finds a sober house for the deaf, led by the supportive but stern Joe (Paul Raci), where Ruben can preserve his sobriety while coming to terms with his new reality. Ruben, meanwhile, just wants to earn enough scratch to pay for cochlear implants.
Sound of Metal is a story of binaries. There is sober Ruben and the specter of not-sober Ruben, hearing Ruben and deaf Ruben, acceptance of hearing loss or a medical “fix”. The film itself operates in Ruben’s hearing/not-hearing world, plunging viewers into a unique soundscape of noise, no noise, some noise, distorted noise. For a film about a musician, there is almost no score—what scoring exists was co-composed by sound editor Nicolas Becker— and instead the soundscape of Sound of Metal is about portraying Ruben’s experience of hearing loss. Dialogue is muted, there’s an intermittent ringing, and for a long stretch in the middle the only noise is ambient. The many sounds and not-sounds can be jarring, but that is the whole point. Ruben is off his axis, spun out by his new circumstance, and the sound design, edited by Becker and mixed by Phillip Bladh, puts the audience in his shoes. We don’t just see Ruben losing his hearing, we hear him losing it, too.
Films such as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Chloe Zhao’s The Rider tread similar thematic ground—arguably to better effect—but what Sound of Metal adds is a novel spin on an addiction story. Ruben isn’t just dealing with hearing loss, he’s also clinging to sobriety, and Sound of Metal is as much about his journey to acceptance as it is his sobriety. It’s that binary nature of the film itself, as Ruben is constantly going through two things and the stakes are raised by the question of whether or not Ruben will successfully navigate this challenge in his life and still be sober while he does. If Sound of Metal was about one or the other thing, it wouldn’t work at all, but by combining an addiction drama with an occupational loss drama, Sound of Metal stays afloat.
It also succeeds thanks to Riz Ahmed, who gives a hugely committed performance, learning both drumming and American Sign Language for the role. In lesser hands, Ruben could be a brute, lashing out with big dramatic speeches and angry flare. But in Ahmed’s hands, Ruben is much more contained. His fear and anger are palpable, but that energy turns inward, for the most part, until it can be expressed through music. Ahmed carries the film, covering the thin patches and almost making up for the contrivances of the final act. He has always been a wiry, tactile performer, and here those qualities are put to great use. From Ruben’s ferocious drumming to his increasing ability with ASL, Ahmed’s physicality communicates so much of Ruben’s experience when words—spoken or signed—fall short of his feelings.
This is the feature film directorial debut of Darius Marder, who also co-writes the film with his brother, Abraham Marder (Derek Cianfrance gets a story credit, Darius Marder co-wrote Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines). It’s a confident and bold debut, especially regarding the unique treatment of sound, though Marder gets cold feet when the film brushes up against real-life issues in the deaf community, such as cochlear implants, which many deaf people see as unnecessary intervention. The issue is there, to be sure, as Ruben sees the implants as a “cure” to a “problem”, while Joe doesn’t consider hearing loss something to be “fixed”. But Sound of Metal skips over that rabbit hole in favor of a slightly too-pat ending for a film that opens with such fury. Still, Sound of Metal is an above-average addiction drama, and Ahmed is blazingly good as Ruben. You do not have to care about heavy metal or drumming to get into it, Ahmed will hook you with his giant Bambi eyes from moment one. This is the most unique film experience of 2020—it’s really too bad we can’t experience the sound design in a theater.
Sound of Metal is streaming on Amazon Prime from December 4. Click here if you are in Canada.