Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.
The movie starts with a high, screeching, ringing noise: the feedback of a guitar. A drummer blankly stares at his kit. He has a tattoo on his chest that reads “Please Kill Me.” The distorted guitar wails on as they crescendo to a barrage of sound. The drummer pounds away with everything he has. Title card: Sound of Metal.
The next morning, Ruben, the drummer, played by Riz Ahmed, wakes up in an RV next to his girlfriend, the guitarist and singer, Lou (Olivia Cooke). He puts on an old jazz record to wake her up, and they dance to a slow soul tune. They sing in the RV as they travel to the next stop on their tour. Their life is full of music.
Then, suddenly, his hearing cuts out, and we hear the constant ringing and muffled voices as he does. He plays the show anyway. The next morning, the RV is silent, and instead of putting on a record, Ruben goes to a drug store to try to fix the trouble with his ears. They take him to a doctor, who tells him that more than three-quarters of his hearing is gone forever unless he gets cochlear implants, which could cost as much as $80,000. Ruben doesn’t tell Lou, and plays the next show, until he has to run off the stage because he cannot hear what he is playing.
The next half hour of the movie is full of tension, panic, denial, and frustration, as Ruben has to come to terms with his situation. It is gripping, effective filmmaking, with anxious and intimate handheld shots that do not let up for a second.
Writer and director Darius Marder, in his debut feature, is locked in on the performances, which are excellent. Even though this is the story of one character, there are several strong supporting roles, including Olivia Cooke as Lou, the French actor Mathieu Amalric as Lou’s father, and an exceptional job by Paul Raci, who plays Joe, a recovered alcoholic who becomes a mentor to Ruben in the deaf community where he stays. Riz Ahmed really makes the movie, though, and this performance shows him as a major talent.
Ahmed has had memorable side roles in movies like Rogue One, and was especially good alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, but he has not been the star of any big movies until this one, where he is in nearly every scene. It is a nuanced performance, and Ahmed catches all the details that make it real without overdoing it. Ruben is a recovered addict who never knew his father and spent his childhood all over the country with his mother, who was in the military. We have heard similar stories before, but Ahmed makes it believable and fresh. In a character-driven film like this, I almost wish we got to hear more from Ruben; he has surprisingly few lines of dialogue. Ruben’s struggle of getting used to life without sound is the most interesting draw of the picture, but it ends up feeling glossed over in parts.
There is a key scene about halfway into the movie: Ruben is visiting a school of deaf children, and he and a little boy exchange drum patterns while holding their ears against a metal slide at the playground. For the first time since becoming deaf, Ruben experiences music. There are a few hopeful notes in the score (which had been absent up to this point,) and now the sign-language has subtitles. Suddenly, Ruben is assimilated into the deaf community. It is a genuine moment, but it comes a little too soon, and slows the pace down quite a bit. By adhering to the spareness of the script, it ends up leaving us farther from the character than we should be.
An enormous amount of time and effort must have gone into the sound design in Sound of Metal, and it pays off. By hearing what Ruben hears, we feel what he is going through. The movie provides a constant contrast between sound as we hear it, and as Ruben does. This intricate sound design provides a level of immersion without being gimmicky or excessive, and it serves as a glue that holds the movie together.
Sound of Metal is a powerful and moving drama. Some parts are a little preachy, especially the ending, but the characters are real enough that it is hard to notice. Darius Marder has made a promising debut film, with a great performance from Riz Ahmed. Detailed sound design and strong acting across the board have made an immersive and emotional story about a musician who suddenly goes deaf.
Riz Ahmed has been nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes for Sound of Metal. The movie is available now on Amazon Prime Video.