(This review contains spoilers)
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a conservative elder’s idea of a heavy metal drummer: tattooed, white-haired, grouchy. He used to do heroin. He's the sort of person who’d bristle at someone asking, doesn’t all that loud music hurt your ears? He plays in a noisy two-person band with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). They’re on tour, living out of his RV. Then Ruben’s ears start buzzing.
Soon, he can’t hear anything but a faint noise when someone’s talking a foot away. The descent into deafness is swift. There’s no creeping loss, just a warning shot or two, and he can’t hear. It’s a smart decision on the part of director Darius Marder and his brother and co-writer, Abraham Marder (Derek Cianfrance, whose own films have a similar unsparing tenderness, has a story credit). By emphasizing the suddenness of the loss, we’re thrown into Ruben’s panicked state of mind as he first covers up his condition, then latches onto the silver bullet of a cochlear implant.
Marder heightens the sudden change by repeatedly switching between Ruben’s soundscape—a buzz of white noise—and the actual volume of the world (the sound editing team deserves all the praise it can get). The scene where Ruben goes for a checkup is one of the most harrowing I’ve seen this year. A doctor says random words out loud, asking Ruben, hooked up to headphones on the other side of a glass pane, to repeat them. Marder thrusts us into the scene without any preamble, placing us first in the room with Ruben, guessing at words he can barely hear, and then switching to the doctor’s side, with Ruben’s incorrect answers now audible. The doc gives it to him straight: he's only catching 20-30% of the sound around him. Ruben still looks confused, so he tells him, bluntly though not unkindly, “The hearing that you lost is not coming back.”
Lou, fearing that Ruben will start using again, takes him to meet a counselor named Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a program for hearing-impaired addicts. Ruben enrolls reluctantly, yet takes to the life surprisingly well, learning how to sign and helping out with deaf children at a school. We begin to see him as an empathetic young man, clearly devoted to Lou. All the same, it’s clear that in Ruben’s mind, this is a temporary refuge, not his future.
Sound of Metal is built around an exceptionally moving performance by Ahmed. Present in almost every scene of the film, he conveys Ruben’s panic and frustration without making sentimental appeals, those strong-man-in-agony scenes that win you Oscar nominations. In tandem with cinematographer Daniël Bouquet’s searching closeups, his performance seems to burrow into Ruben and present him to us without any artifice. He’s surrounded by members of the deaf community in smaller parts, though the principals—Ahmed, Raci, Cooke (affecting, if you can ignore the white eyebrows) and Mathieu Amalric in a terrific cameo—are hearing actors.
Without ignoring the opportunity this role would have presented for a deaf actor, one might argue that the casting of a hearing actor is somewhat justified here, since they can imagine the helplessness of someone who’s suddenly lost the ability to hear. Raci, too, is a hearing actor, though someone who grew up with deaf parents, and who runs a deaf theatre. The veteran actor's weathered face and gruff manner is a counterpoint to Ahmed’s barely veiled turmoil. There’s a wonderful scene where Joe tells Ruben that his house runs on the belief that being deaf is not a handicap, and that Ruben’s desire for surgery is damaging to morale. “There are too many others to consider,” he whispers and signs.
The open-ended way Sound of Metal leaves us again runs contrary to the sewn-up endings of similar films. In bed with Lou, the Sid Vicious tattoo on his chest a reminder of an artist who surrendered to his demons, Ruben seems to access the stillness Joe challenged him to find. “It’s okay, Lou,” he says, “it’s okay. You saved my life. You made it beautiful. So it’s okay.” He leaves the next morning, alone. The last scene is him sitting on a bench, the ringing church bells a dull metallic clang in his ears. He takes off the hearing device and looks around. His expression gives nothing away. We have no idea how he feels about the first day of the rest of his life.
Sound of Metal is on Amazon Prime Video.