Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of”) stars as Ruben a young man in a heavy metal band on his way to success, but suddenly begins to lose his hearing. It’s a surprisingly empathetic film that delves into the hearing versus the deaf community and the balancing act between the two.
The beginning of the film, unless you’re a heavy metal music fan, is a bit off-putting, but quickly we experience Ruben’s auditory changing world as he does. His talented girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) and he travel from gig to gig in their shabby but comfy sleeper van, but one day, Ruben finds he cannot hear more than muffled sounds. Confused and scared, he finds his way to an audiologist who diagnoses his hearing loss, attributed to drug usage, as one that is irreparable. The only way to regain his hearing is through an expensive surgical procedure of cochlear implants. No money and now no way of getting any, he finds himself alone and struggling—a position that a recovering addict may relapse—as he searches for answers and himself along the way.
“Sound of Metal” is a sensorial masterpiece allowing the viewers to walk in Ruben’s shoes. It’s not a total world of silence, initially, but one that is muffled, giving it a sense of being underwater and in an unfamiliar and unnavigable world. With deft direction of both Ahmed’s reactions and sound editing, we find the anger, the frustration, and the fear of the future that Ruben is feeling. Ahmed’s keen understanding of his character is expressed in every nuanced manner, from his bold round eyes that dart like a captured deer to his once confident swagger as a drummer now hesitatingly putting one foot in front of the other in a world he just doesn’t understand.
Finding refuge in a facility for the deaf run by Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben begins to see the world in a different way. He also begins to see himself in a new and perhaps improved way. He gets in touch with his thoughts and begins to help others, specifically children with hearing loss. This environment poses the question of is deafness a difference or a handicap. And that is a question that Ruben combats as he knows there’s a solution just $40,000 away in a surgical procedure.
Ahmed is the star in this story, but never is he overly dramatic or artificial. His subtleties in posture, body language, expressions, and every attribute a seasoned actor hopes to have is effortless conveyed. The cinematography accompanies the sound design like a well oiled machine, delivering and accentuating Ahmed’s performance. Ahmed lets us into his character’s mind as we understand he demons with which he struggles and his intrinsic conflicts.
“Sound of Metal” is a small cast of characters, but of interest is Paul Raci who’s knowledge and understanding of the deaf community comes naturally. We see this in his passion as he explains what it means to be hearing impaired or deaf and how this community differs in its views from the hearing world. Raci’s emotive performance finds perfect harmony with Ahmed’s seemingly genuine reactions and together they enable you to have a deeper and more meaningful understanding of this world.
While his drug usage caused Ruben’s hearing loss, Marder is careful to never be heavy handed with this aspect of the story. It’s an element, but only one to provide a vehicle for the plot to move forward. The script takes us on a journey most would never know and when we come out on the other side, we see and feel our environment differently. With a compelling story arc, we root for him to regain his hearing only to find ourselves questioning whether or not this is truly the best thing for him. Ahmed has created a character with whom we are invested. We care about him and see as he reaches a cross roads in his new life. Ultimately, it’s his choice and Marder allows the rest of story to unfold naturally. And as the pacing of the film revs up, it readies us for the finale—one that will leave you speechless and contemplative. It’s not often a film can provide these elements along with a natural sense of empathy.
Releasing on demand Dec. 4 on Amazon Prime and all other major digital platforms.
3 1/2 stars