Sound of Metal starts off with a raucous, rip-roaringly loud post-punk, experimental metal duo onstage—Lou (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel) provides screaming vocals and shredding guitar, while her boyfriend Ruben (Riz Ahmed, The Night Of) bashes away at the drums. The club-caliber musician is shown wearing ear protection, but it does no good. Soon after, his hearing begins to fade. It comes and goes, until one day it just goes. Needless to say, this is akin to an artist losing his fingers or a photographer going blind. Music is Ruben’s life, and now everything is thrown into turmoil.
Ruben, a former drug addict, was hanging by a thread already—four years sober thanks to love and support from Lou—but when she leaves him, that’s the final straw. Ruben knows he cannot face this cosmic comedown alone. He checks himself into an isolated, long-term rehab facility for the deaf. He goes through the motions of learning American Sign Language (ASL), but all the while, he is trying to figure out how to beat the devil. If Ruben can somehow get the tens of thousands he will need for cochlear implant surgery, which he believes everything will go back to “normal.”
For those hoping (as I was) for a music-centric film, sorry, but Sound of Metal is an existential drama that moves at a glacial pace. Fortunately, the subject matter is interesting enough, and the actors are flat-out marvelous. Ahmed is one of the best actors of his generation. He certainly shows his incredible range here—basically, Ruben goes through the five stages of grief with the loss of his most crucial sense, then to the flipside when he actually does get that expensive restorative operation. But as they say, all that glitters is not gold. Ruben soon discovers that getting his hearing back is not exactly what he thought it would be.
Side characters include Joe (Paul Raci, Baskets), the sympathetic but tough counselor who runs the facility for the deaf, and Lou’s complicated dad, Richard (Mathieu Amalric, The Grand Budapest Hotel). Both are excellent, but Raci is given a more complex nuanced role—and it’s one he can actually relate to (his parents are deaf, he is a court-certified ALS interpreter, a musician, and the lead singer for a rock band that performs using sign language). Thanks in part to that naturally endowed gravitas, Raci conveys volumes with just his eyes and mere expression.
Sound of Metal is well-shot, employing an apropos combination of cinematic and cinéma verité. The band’s music feels raw and authentic, and the score is striking as well. But the most gripping piece of the moviemaker’s puzzle is the absence of sound, which alternates with skillfully-wrought soundscapes. Throughout the speaking portions of the film, captions are ingrained for the hearing-impaired audience—and when there is sign language, there are no subtitles, forcing the rest of the audience to experience what Ruben is going through as he adapts to his new circumstances. We also hear things as he does, muffled in the beginning, and chaotic at the end.
This is the debut film from director Darius Marder, who also penned the screenplay (he is best known for co-writing The Place Beyond the Pines). Marder has done a tremendous job with a difficult subject, not to mention all the thought put into the presentation. I just wish I would have enjoyed the movie more—all the elements to love it are there, but the pacing is just so damnably slow. As it turns out, Sound of Metal is a movie I admire more than I like.