Premise: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
I had an optometrist appointment several years ago, in which I was told by the end of it that my vision in my right eye was slightly worse than my left. Naturally, the diagnosis wasn’t ideal, but, considering my work as a photographer, the development left me even more worried. As most photographers do, I primarily use my right eye to look through the viewfinder while using my camera. How could I continue on as a photographer if I couldn’t see the pictures I wanted to take?
This is the nature of the existential dilemma that Ruben (Riz Ahmed) has to face early on in Sound of Metal. Ruben is a drummer for a hard rock band who learns early on that he’s losing his ability to hear anything. Voices, music, and virtually every noise quickly becomes a drowned-out thrumming sound. Of course, this leaves him unable to do his job and, perhaps more importantly, the thing he loves most.
“Disability” movies, in which the protagonist suffers a life-altering disability and has to learn to adjust or overcome it, are nothing new for Hollywood, but director Darius Marder makes subtle decisions that make Sound of Metal feel fresh and humanistic. The most noticeable of those decisions is the incredible sound design. Rather than portraying Ruben’s hearing loss with the same dulling of noises, each iteration we get inside Ruben’s head sounds slightly different, devolving in sound quality as his hearing ability does. After Ruben’s diagnosis, he visits a retreat for the hearing impaired – a resolution that requires some heavy coaxing from his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke). The retreat home is run by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing in the war and can read Ruben’s lips. Joe breaks Ruben in with a heavy dose of tough love, but Raci still makes Joe a likeable character.
Much of the second act involves Ruben and his struggle to fit in, not only with his new housemates, but to his new way of life. Not only is Ruben unable to hear anything, but because he doesn’t understand American Sign Language, he can’t communicate in any way with those around him. Consider the scene at a dinner table soon after Ruben’s arrival: everyone around the table is fluidly communicating using sign language, but Ruben sits in confused silence. Marder simply uses ambient noise in the nearly-silent scene to make the audience truly immersed in Ruben’s sense of isolation. And, in another strong choice by Marder, once he finally does start to feel at home and learn ASL, it’s not brought about in an “ah-ha” moment where everything snaps into focus and life is liveable again.
It’s Marder’s tune that brings Sound of Metal to life, but it really sings because of Riz Ahmed’s powerful performance as Ruben. It’s no small feat as an actor to portray a physical disability, and even less so when the disability is an entirely internalized one. There are long stretches of the film where Marder uses little to no dialogue, instead relying mostly on Ahmed’s flustered reactions to sell the reality of each moment, and Ahmed delivers. After making an early splash in a starring role in HBO’s mini-series The Night Of in 2016, Ahmed has carved out a solid reputation as an actor willing to forego vanity and portray mostly gritty, tough characters. His work in Sound of Metal is the best of his career thus far, proving he has the gravitas to take a complex role and create a real, magnetic person. Ahmed largely avoids the melodramatic moments that most actors would make, choosing instead to offer a more subtle performance. The final scene in particular, another mostly silent sequence, is heartbreaking because of the work Ahmed has shown up until that point. It’s unfortunate though that, right before that moment, the story meanders a bit throughout the final act.
Ask nearly any professional screenwriter, and they will tell you the key to dramatic tension is to ask “what does your character want, why can’t they have it, and what are they willing to do to get it”. Sound of Metal’s tension lies in Ruben’s feeling of helplessness as his body begins to change against his will. Once he leaves Joe’s retreat house after selling most of his possessions to get cochlear implants, the film struggles to present any further challenges for Ruben. Again, Marder smartly shows that Ruben’s new implants don’t solve every problem by using the innovative sound design to show the realistically robotic, static-like sound of cochlear implants. But even with this knowledge in the back of our minds, the story at large isn’t strong enough to sustain itself for the remaining 20 minutes or so. Still, Riz Ahmed makes every moment on screen feel lived-in and raw.
The shutdown of theaters hasn’t resulted in many offerings that have provided any worse at-home viewing experiences, but Sound of Metal would surely benefit from a viewing on a large screen with a premium sound system. And in a year without many noteworthy leading male performances, Ahmed’s quietly shines as one of the best.
Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.