For its seemingly loud title, Sound of Metal is a quietly intimate film about a man struggling to accept the new circumstances under which he must live. At the center of Sound of Metal is a powerfully raw performance from British actor Riz Ahmed, a breakout from Dan Gilroy’s 2014 thriller Nightcrawler, and more recently was the bad guy in Venom.
Ruben is a heavy metal drummer for the duo-band Blackgammon. He plays with his singer girlfriend Lou (Ready Player One’s Olivia Cooke), whom he also lives in an RV with. Blackgammon is about to head onto the tour scene when suddenly, while setting up before a gig, Ruben’s ears seem to give out. Despite having trouble hearing what his girlfriend is saying to him, the show must go on; surely this will be fixed in the morning…much to Ruben’s dismay, it isn’t. When he finally sees a doctor, Ruben discovers that he has lost nearly three quarters of his hearing. Ruben’s denial of and frustration with his deafness now threaten his relationship, sobriety, and musical career.
Heading into Sound of Metal, I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect; I heard strong word of mouth for Riz Ahmed’s performance, but otherwise kept myself in the dark. The first thing I will say is do not expect a musically driven film, nor a Whiplash-esque drumming experience; Sound of Metal is more intent on focusing on the internal struggle with identity and acceptance its protagonist, Ruben, faces.
As a drummer, an up-and-coming artist, and an all-around lover of music, Ruben’s ears are vital to his daily life. When he loses his ability to hear, Ruben feels as if he’s lost everything overnight. He’s rightfully frustrated, but no matter how much he kicks and screams, Ruben is not going to get his natural hearing back. Sound of Metal is an observation of how we react to the punches life throws our way, and also about a man who is chasing after the person he was rather than learn to embrace the one he is. This identity crisis can be witnessed as Ruben begins to learn sign language and integrate himself into a deaf community, but remains committed to the expensive goal of receiving implants to help restore some of his hearing.
Riz Ahmed as Ruben is given the difficult task of playing someone missing their hearing, when the actor himself can hear quite fine. While acting in such a manner may feel unnatural, Ahmed pulls it off convincingly. You hear as he elevates the volume of his voice when speaking to people, as if he’s doing it only so he can hear himself. When someone is calling for Ruben’s attention, his reaction is delayed. This element of Ahmed’s performance is complemented by the film’s sound design. Often throughout Sound of Metal, the audio is muted and distorted as to simulate the feeling of being deaf. The sound design serves to allow the viewer to experience Ruben’s plight with him.
Written and directed by Darius Marder (with help from his brother, Abraham), Sound of Metal avoids sentimentality and goes for more evocative realism. The film is based on an unfinished docufiction from Derek Cianfrance, who wrote and directed Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines; Marder helped Cianfrance write The Place Beyond the Pines and Cianfrance later gave Marder his blessing to finish what he couldn’t. Some of Cianfrance’s influence can be witnessed in Sound of Metal’s story, as reminiscent of Blue Valentine the film keys in on the frustration of its characters and lacks a certain Hollywood glossiness. The film would rather place Ahmed in a small room alone with his thoughts than be showy, and Ahmed thrives in these situations Marder sets up for him.
Sound of Metal does start to drag in its final acts, and I would have liked more development of Lou, whom is described as having played a significant part in Ruben’s life in saving him from his heroin addiction. However, Ahmed’s performance and Sound of Metal’s poetic story make the film worth a watch. 7.5/10