Riz Ahmed is an actor with such a frantic screen presence that it always feels like he might jump out of the frame at any minute, but in Sound of Metal, he’s completely trapped. As Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer who’s going deaf at the center of the impressive debut feature from writer-director Darius Marder, Ahmed conveys the complex frustrations of losing touch with the world around him no matter how much he fights to hold onto it. This devastating conundrum relies on the best use of sound design in recent memory, as Marder immerses his audience within the confines of Ruben’s deteriorating relationship to the world around him, as he sorts through the wreckage to construct a new one. Ahmed’s brilliant performance coasts on a complex soundscape that resonates even in total silence. From the moment we first see Ruben, Marder turns the volume up. Slamming away at his drum set in the heat of a blaring show, Ruben appears to have the ideal routine to suit his talents. Living in a ramshackle RV with his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), he’s immersed in a tour and has found a partner in crime to keep his life in balance. As the couple roams around their mobile home, their jitteriness hints at the history of addiction that comes to bear later on; at the same time, it’s clear that they’ve moved past that chapter into a powerful union.
Soon though, Ruben’s blindsided when, without warning, the music begins to muffle into a dull turn one night, sending him on a desperate search for a doctor. Ahmed embodies the pure fright and horror of Ruben’s situation as he learns that his hearing is almost gone, leaving him unable to comprehend the majority of the words around him. Medical professionals don’t waste any time on why it’s happened — could be the hardcore drumming, could be an autoimmune condition — because the bottom line is the same: It’s not coming back, and he needs to preserve whatever hearing he has left. Instead, he follows his instincts right back to the stage, until it nearly destroys him. The movie’s first disorienting act unfolds like the rock world’s answer to The Wrestler, the story of a grimy musician committed to the physical toll of his art to the point of willful ignorance. But Lou, whom Cooke plays with a strong blend of empathy and anger, won’t have any of it. Marder gives us snippets of Ruben’s declining condition as the couple argues through the situation, juggling one-sided calls with their manager until he begrudgingly gets help.
That decision pitches the movie into an engrossing middle section, as Ruben enlists in a remote deaf community for recovering addicts and gradually involves himself in its unique ecosystem. Overseen by no-nonsense lip reader Joe (Paul Raci), the home provides Ruben with the chance to come to terms with his deafness rather that rushing to gather funds for a cochlear implant. Raci, a child of a deaf parent, has a defiant and wise screen presence that works alongside Ahmed quite well. Joe sees potential in Ruben’s feisty attitude, pushing him through tough love to make peace with his condition. As Ruben begins to learn sign language, hang around the property, and even bond with the deaf children in a neighbor elementary school, Sound of Metal suggests he could very land on a trajectory toward new beginnings. But life has a tendency to follow jagged paths, and Ruben’s relationship to his former life leads him to take a series of desperate acts that threaten to ruin his progress. Marder, who wrote the film with his brother Abraham, drops small details that point Ruben’s complex inner conflict as he struggles to sort through his priorities. Even the movie’s warmer moments come tinged with the uneasiness that it all might unravel at any moment. Marder previously co-wrote Derek Cianfrance’s unnerving character study The Place Beyond the Pines, which similarly shifted threw gruff, masculine characters into jolting scenarios that forced them into quieter terrain. And like Cianfrance’s work as a whole, Sound of Metal injects visceral, edgy circumstances with remarkable sensitivity.
Also like The Place Beyond the Pines, Sound of Metal is quite schematic in its plotting, setting up beats that will foreseeably repeat or rhyme with another beat down the road. Thankfully, Ahmed helps balance some of those: The actor exhibits a furious, shell-shocked demeanor for the bulk of the movie, and it’s always a convincing display. He also helps as the film pushes into contrived circumstances during the mixed and prolonged final act, that eventually takes a melodramatic plunge. The late addition of family backstory, with a glorified cameo by Mathieu Amalric as Lou’s discerning father, has a shoehorned-in quality that feels as though it were cribbed from a lesser movie. As much as Marder excels at building up to these circumstances, he can’t quite land the full package.
Fortunately, the movie arrives at a solitary moment that brings its grungy poetry to a satisfying finish. After one scene in which applause blurs to a deafening hiss, Marder brings us back to silence, foregrounding the way that Ruben must disassociate with a life that’s no longer sustainable. (A lot of credit must go the sound department overseen by supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker.) For much of the movie Ruben exudes the desperation of a man willing to restore his hearing at all costs; the emotional weight of this poignant drama stems from his ability to arrive at a new revelation. Sound of Metal is ultimately about what it means to march to the beat of a different drum when the familiar music stops for good. An evocative story of swapping addictions and readjustment, Sound of Metal‘s sensory overload and deeply-felt lead performance from Riz Ahmed ultimately find enough ways to enliven its schematic playbook.
The Sound of Metal screened at the 2020 Hamptons International Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release the film into Select Theaters on November 20 before Amazon Prime Video on December 4