Large chunks of “Sound of Metal” play out in complete silence. Forced to read subtitles and watch actions, we’re thrust into the world of a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing before a performance.
When he discovers it’s not fleeting, the indie punker has to rethink his life. Will it include music? His girlfriend Lou? His always-moving RV?
Director Darius Marder plays out much of the drama on actor Riz Ahmed’s face. There, we sense the fear, pain and loss. When he goes to an audiologist for testing, it become clear: Change is essential.
But where? What?
Lou (Olivia Cooke) worries he’ll fall back into addiction. She finds a 13-step group in a community for the deaf. There, the leader, Joe (Paul Raci), convinces her he has to go it alone. So, she leaves him there, vowing to avoid contact.
Like a little boy, Ruben holds back. He fights the inevitable and watches with surprise as others lean in. When a group of kids show him the joy they’ve found in life, he softens and then decides to sell everything so he can fund a very expensive cochlear implant.
Marder waits to let us know if it works. In the interim, Ruben has to decide what he really wants.
“Sound of Metal” does plenty to put us in Ruben’s shoes. Much of that is because Ahmed knows how to play with emotions. He gets great support from Raci, who doesn’t cut him any breaks, and Cooke, who knows how tough love has to be.
When Marder duplicates what Ruben hears, we get it. This isn’t an easy transition. It’s a journey. Like “Whiplash,” sound is a supporting character. Subtitles help, too. But “Sound of Metal” wouldn’t work as well without Ahmed. Ruben – right down to his stray tattoos – is so specific we get what his world is like, in and out of the RV.
A second chance with Lou tosses him in another world and, soon, we’re facing what becomes his tipping point.
Marder has populated his film with deaf actors and sprinkled it with references only they would understand. Like “Deaf U,” it shows a bit of what we, the hearing world, have been missing.
As grueling as Ruben’s journey is, it’s also affirming. It shows no matter what we might encounter there’s a way to deal and, in many instances, prosper. It just takes time to adjust.
Ahmed is a beautiful guide to that reality.