The title Sound of Metal has a double meaning in Darius Marder’s tremendous feature debut. Riz Ahmed continues his streak of emotionally-complex lead performances as Ruben, a drummer who loses himself in his band’s heavy metal music. Then there’s the other “metal” that becomes a part of his life and must struggle to comprehend, and that’s the tinny sound that is all that’s left of his hearing he begins to lose it.
From the very beginning, Sound of Metal is about someone who has jacked up the volume in his life to eleven. Ruben loves the noise that is his existence, rocking out at night with his lover and bandmate Lou (an almost unrecognizable Olivia Cooke), then settling into their rundown RV, waking up early for a quick breakfast before hitting the next tourstop. There is a strange sort of balance to it; something Ruben and Lou, two people who clearly have self-destructive tendencies and past traumas, need to get by. So when Ruben wakes up one day and can barely hear anything, the sounds coming through muffled like they were buried in carpet, it throws that balance out of wack.
Ruben’s reaction is what I think a lot of people would have. The shock and confusion is plastered all over his face, with Ahmed capturing that initial terror and misunderstanding. A doctor’s unsentimental diagnosis mirrors that of the movie itself. Maybe it was the years of damage caused by his music of choice, or it’s a fast-acting autoimmune disease. Either way, his hearing is not coming back and Ruben needs to start learning how to cope.
What unfolds next is like something out of Rocky, with the aging pugilist who just can’t stay out of the ring. Ruben tries to deny it, with drumming as the form of self-harm that drugs and alcohol might’ve been in years prior. Ruben’s addiction isn’t just to music, it’s to his way of life because he’s seen what life was like without it. When recommended to connect with Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a commune where the deaf learn to make the most of their situation, Ruben fights it. Lou would need to leave him behind so he can commit fully to the program. His world is changing, and will never be the same again.
Sound of Metal is about dealing with monumental change, and accepting that the road to a new life is often a rocky one. Marder doesn’t pull any punches in depicting how tough it is to leave your old life behind. Even when opportunities for easy sentiment arrive, there’s never the sense that everything is settled for good. Ruben does eventually begin to see things differently by working with the other deaf members of Joe’s community; spending time with the kids there, learning sign language, and imparting his own well-worn wisdom. But the pull of his past life is always there, and Ruben makes choices that put everything he has gained in real jeopardy.
As Ruben stumbles backwards, our inclination isn’t to pity him. One of the things Marder, who also co-wrote the script, does is refuse to see deafness as a weakness. Nor does he allow for Ruben or any of his characters to be defined solely by their lack of hearing, but as people with strengths, weaknesses, highs and lows like everyone else. Joe embodies this mantra, suggesting that Ruben find that stillness, that silence, and to just live in it. That’s much easier said than done, and it all begins with a mindset that you are just as strong and capable as ever.
Marder’s use of silence and sound is truly extraordinary and goes a long way in putting us in Ruben’s disoriented state of mind. This is a film that makes judicious use of closed captioning, as well, even before Ruben’s hearing begins to go. It isn’t just the words that are tough for us to hear behind the blaring metal music, but descriptions of all of the sounds, muffled dialogue, and more. We’re constantly being pulled through the multiple levels of distortion that Ruben experiences, to better understand the disquiet he feels from moment to moment.
None of this would be as effective if it weren’t for Ahmed, who is terrific here in capturing Ruben’s rage. He’s not the most likable character in the world, but then he doesn’t really need to be. That’s not the point; actually, this would be a less believable movie if he were a saint. Marder, and likely us as well, would be inclined to wonder why someone so good could have something like this happen to them. That’s the wrong feeling to try and pull from the audience. Ruben is quick to temper, easily frustrated, and angry about the loss of identity he feels. That’s a totally normal reaction to have, and Ahmed embodies that barely-controlled fury, while proving just as believable when Ruben begins to turn the corner into acceptance.
There comes a point when Sound of Metal does begin to lose its way, as Marder introduces new characters, such as Mathieu Amalric as Lou’s father, that are there to explain things rather than show them. As good as Olivia Cooke is in the role, Lou is a far more important character in absentia than when she’s there, and learning her backstory only clouds our understanding of Ruben and his journey.
Unlike the aforementioned boxing drama, there is no title to be won in Sound of Metal. There is no magical endpoint where Ruben wins back his old life. A point arrives, capturing in a silence so glorious it might’ve been sent from above, when everything snaps into focus. Through Marder’s ingenious use of sound editing and Ahmed’s raw energetic performance, Sound of Metal celebrates those who have learned to drum to a new rhythm when the old one is lost to them.