When Ruben (Riz Ahmed) first appears in Sound of Metal, he is behind a drum kit in a dank club, pounding out a heathen beat as Lou, his bandmate and girlfriend, howls at the microphone and scratches at her guitar. He concentrates, looking a little stunned and touch imperiled. Ruben is clearly in his element, and yet there is burden in his demeanor. He carries pain and anger. And this is before his life is knocked asunder.
Ruben has a rapidly deteriorating hearing problem, presumably brought on by the excessive volume of the music he plays. It manifests initially as the pinging tone of tinnitus and quickly escalates to the point where he has practically no hearing at all. His entreaties to continue as a musician (he hopes to take cues from Lou on stage) are obviously delusional. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Ruben looks to his support network and finds his way to a reclusive, supportive community with a rehab feel. It is there, he is told, that he can learn how to be deaf, even as he stews and plot to get cochlear implants, sure that the surgical procedure will restore the life he once had.
Darius Marder writes and directs, making his feature debut in the latter capacity. And its a stunning start. Sound of Metal is deeply empathetic, emotionally powerful, and dramatically sound. It makes broad, poignant points without sacrificing the satisfaction of strong, character-driven storytelling. The film has the lean certainty of the best independent filmmaking, where the sheen and spectacle that are applied to studio features are simply unavailable, and so the creators dig into firm, furious truths instead. There is technical skill on display, to be sure — especially in the truly astonishing sound design that provides a convincing approximation of Ruben’s auditory shifts — but Marder mostly gets by on the ingenuity that comes with making up for budgetary shortcomings.
Appropriately, Marder casts several deaf actors in key supporting roles, and nearly all of them make strong, memorable impressions. Among those cast members, none is more impressive than Paul Raci, playing the kind but stern, and gingerly world-weary, manager of the deaf community where Ruben takes up residence. Understated and naturalistic, Raci artfully signals the dedication of the character in continually trying situations. But the film’s towering presence is Ahmed, who takes Ruben through a tumultuous journey, properly playing the fear, confusion, anger, uncertainty, and frustration as the character adjusts to his new reality. The physical change Ruben experiences is the least of it, and Ahmed astutely realizes this. He plays the character throughly, right down to the soul.
Sound of Metal is a movie with a message, and it could be reasonably argued that it sometimes makes its points too clearly, the thesis all but underlined by certain patches of dialogue. In this instance, the choice feels earned to me, a proper reflection of a character making sense of way of being that never previously occurred to him. Ultimately, being plain is Marder’s way of communing with Ruben, meeting the character where he’s at. Drumbeats shouldn’t be obscure and elusive. They’re too important to driving the show.