There’s a brief moment in Sound of Metal, the debut film from The Place Beyond the Pines scribe Darius Marder, that stopped me dead in my tracks. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is sleeping next to a man who is snoring, and the shot is played for laughs. It harshly cuts to Ruben, who’s a metal drummer losing his hearing, and the sound mix completely changes. By taking the sound of snoring away, Marder catches the laugh right in your throat. Sound of Metal is a messy journey, succeeding less in plot and structure, and more in a semi-immersive experience aided perfectly by Riz Ahmed’s beautiful performance and the supporting cast who fill out a story of a recovering addict going deaf.
Ruben is in a noise metal group with Lou (Olivia Cook), touring in a ramshackle RV and playing for a devoted but small audience every night. While setting the stage one night, Ruben’s hearing turns into a murky, underwater rumble. He pushes his way through the show that evening, but his hearing is even worse the next morning. He finds his way to a pharmacy, asking the pharmacist to write down what he’s saying; forwarding him later to a doctor. The series of events unfold like a daze with Ahmed’s character hopelessly shuffling from moment to moment with disarming and disheartening sound design that puts you in Ruben’s shoes when his life changes for the worst. Things get worse as Lou confronts Ruben, and she realizes that this is something that can’t change. The scene in which this unravels is horrifying and crushing in equal regard.
Lou tries to do what’s best for Ruben, and leaves him with a small deaf community, led by Joe (Paul Raci). Raci plays Joe with a stern charm, imbuing Ruben’s entrance to this minuscule group with a do or die mentality. Raci’s excellent performance is what helps the film fall into a remarkable second act groove. As we observe Ruben and the community he finds himself a part of, the film grows into an incredibly engaging portrait of deaf culture. Sound of Metal is fascinating, but it’s also self-defeating at some points. As soon as you fall in love with the portrayal of a small group of wonderful people, the plot charges ahead, and Ruben feels like he needs to move on.
What works best throughout is the film’s attempt at immersion. Using the sound mix to the fullest whenever Ruben is the focal point of a scene, the audio imitates the sounds of someone who’s nearing deafness. The never-ending discomfort that the mix provides is both jarring and unpleasant, but eventually it brings you closer to the protagonist. Similarly, the film-making seems to grow more confident as it goes on. While the opening act has some of the film’s strongest scenes, it also contains quite a bit of out of place banter and a scattershot tone.
The entire film hinges on Riz Ahmed, and he delivers in one of his best performances yet. Covered in tattoos and a head of dyed white hair, Ruben is a brooding and difficult character. His performance is so cutting and raw that it makes some of the film’s earliest scenes hard to watch. The performance excels even more once Ruben moves into the deaf community, as he moves from being a strongly spoken man to one who expresses himself with his body language, posture, and expressions. With the casting of deaf actors, Darius Marder has made this a celebration of hearing impaired people, who don’t see themselves on the silver screen often. Sound of Metal lives on a tricky tightrope, balancing a portrait of a shattered man and a film that honors the beautiful community it depicts,where it progresses with a skillful candor.
Sound of Metal screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will eventually release the film in the upcoming months…