Being unable to hear and unable to listen are two very different issues, and in Darius Marder’s directorial debut “Sound of Metal,” Riz Ahmed gives an extraordinary performance as a punk-metal-experimental drummer and recovering addict who is forced to come face to face with both of them.
Marder (who co-wrote with his brother, Abraham) creates a world that feels lived-in and characters of varying who all seem like they’ve got mileage on them. The writing leaves some unanswered questions, which viewers may interpret either as frustrating or as a reflection of the protagonist, who finds himself rudderless when he loses his hearing. Either way, Ahmed’s performance goes a long way in holding the film together.
His character, Ruben, lives in an RV with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, “Ready Player One”), and the two form a touring band of reputable esteem if not lucrative record contracts. One day, Ruben’s hearing suddenly, abruptly disappears; a doctor informs him he won’t regain his hearing, although expensive implant surgery is an option. Deeply shaken and worried about the status of his four-year sobriety from heroin, Ruben travels to a facility recommended by his manager, one that’s part of a larger deaf community.
The rehab is run by Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci), whose greatest challenge is getting Ruben to embrace the idea of stillness, in both the audible sense and the spiritual one. Ruben begins to settle into the community — learning American Sign Language, making new friends, and trying to absorb the lessons that Joe has to teach — but the draw of Lou and the life he left behind lead him to difficult choices.
One of the best features of “Sound of Metal” is its refusal to indulge in triumph-of-the-human-spirit clichés that so often weigh down disability narratives. Ruben’s hearing loss is sudden and shocking, and while editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (“Beasts of No Nation”) uses montage to portray Ruben’s experiences and progress in the community, neither that editing nor Abraham Marder’s score are trying to push our “Rocky” buttons.
That commitment to realism goes all the way up to Ahmed’s performance, which doesn’t shy away from the terror or self-pity a musician would feel when suddenly robbed of his ability to appreciate and create within his chosen artform. It’s the kind of acting that understands that an intense brand of silence can communicate more than a grand speech, and Ahmed is consistently riveting. So is Raci, a theater actor and musician who brings with him the kind of gravitas that makes Joe a fascinating counterpart to the volatile Ruben.
The Marders’ screenplay does place Ruben into multiple situations — regarding his entry into the rehab, not to mention some major decisions he makes late in the film — that play abruptly, as though we’ve missed conversations that Ruben would have had before taking such big steps. “Sound of Metal” also assumes that viewers already know about cochlear implants and why they’re a subject of controversy in the deaf community (notably explored in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Sound and Fury”) rather than offer exposition. Of course, this is a film in which all of the spoken dialogue is close-captioned while none of the ASL conversation is, so perhaps the goal here is to make members of the hearing community feel as disoriented as Ruben is for so much of the film.
What hearing audiences will get to experience is the intricate sound design by Nicholas Becker (“Gravity”) and his team, which take us inside Ruben’s head to capture the distortions and the silences he experiences as his hearing diminishes. The notion of subjective sound isn’t new to movies — Hitchcock occasionally played around with it, and Liberace, of all people, starred as a musician who goes deaf in 1955’s “Sincerely Yours,” which portrayed his experience via the soundtrack — but Becker and company forge a soundscape that’s essential to understanding the character.
“Sound of Metal” is a story about loss, but it’s also one about the potential to gain. As Ahmed’s character aims for transcendence, the film is determined to push itself toward a contented ambiguity, one with as many possibilities as obstacles, ultimately settling itself and its musician protagonist in the center of an open-ended existence.