Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” takes us on an immersive Elisabeth Kübler-Ross journey into deafness. It’s poignant and harrowing on the most personal level version of what one might go through when one of your most vital senses, hearing, all but vanishes in a flash.
Riz Ahmed‘s performance, as a young thrash metal drummer with past addictions but a lot to live for until that awful day, is subtle in ways you don’t expect, cutting in a manner anyone experiencing this could appreciate. It’s a great turn in a thought-provoking film that rises above what could have been a gimmick at its heart to become something painful and moving.
Ahmed (of “Rogue One” and “Nightcrawler”) is Ruben, drummer for Black Gammon, a duo built around his screaming, guitar-playing girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). We see half of one song from one set and we cringe, not so much at the music but for what we know is coming.
They travel the country, gig to gig, in his vintage Airstream 345 RV, young lovers living a dream and sharing that same dream.
He romantically wakes her to vintage blues and R&B LPs, breakfasts on veggie smoothies and maintains an exercise regimen. He’s healthy and “clean” at the moment, and determined to keep Lou happy and meet their fans expectations, too.
Nothing sadder than a shirtless drummer with “Please Kill Me” among his chest-full of tattoos if the guy’s not been doing his sit-ups.
He gets a warning that something is amiss one night, but he keeps it to himself. Tinnitus is a hazard of the job, after all. But when he wakes up in near silence, and popping his ears accomplishes nothing, Ruben quietly panics.
Why else would you see a pharmacist for sudden hearing loss? A referral to a doctor (Tom Kemp) gives us the first hint of the “denial” to come.
“The hearing you have lost is not coming back,” the specialist tells him. “Your obligation now is to preserve the hearing you have.”
It might have been the din that he’s performed in over the years, or something “auto-immune.” He used to do drugs, which can’t have helped.
We see Ruben’s pestering “How do we fix this?” questions for what he doesn’t. It isn’t sinking in. And as it does, Ahmed lets us see the panic wash over his face. His whole life — his passions, his part and his love are bound to his hearing.
He takes word of cochlear “implants” in ways we know are pie-in-the-sky oversimplifications. Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) plays Lou getting the news with a blank-faced shock, a much quicker realization than his “It’ll come back, it’s fine” self-prognosis. The fact that the conversation started with shouts (he can’t hear) and degenerates into “Write it DOWN” underscores that.
The call to their unseen/unheard manager suggests he’s run into this before. He gives Ruben a guy to “go see,” and Lou directions on how to get there. It’s not a second opinion, a place where they can look into the pricey “implants” option. It’s a community for the deaf.
Non-nonsense Joe (Paul Raci, quite good) sits him down, switches on a talk-to-text PC program and sizes him up in an interview, the underlying issues that have him grasping at straws, the demons his new condition will force Ruben to face, even if Ruben is the last one to accept that.
“You need support right now!” Lou pleads.
“I need a f—–g gun in my mouth!”
“Sound of Metal” then documents Ruben’s adjustment, or failure to adjust, via group therapy sessions (a few deaf addicts are in this community), his first encounters with sign language, sullen resignation given new purpose by competing with a befriending deaf school kids and struggling to see how much of what he lost he can “get back.”
Ahmed’s performance is compact and internal, with occasional moments of lashing out given a frightening fury. The “gimmick” here is in the way director Marder uses sound, forcing the viewer to experience the world the way Ruben does — muffled at times, lightly ringing here and there, utterly silent at others.
Although the arc of the story is quite conventional in terms of Ruben’s “stages of death and dying” journey, the script and Ahmed’s affecting, sympathetic performance make us cling to the same hopes that Ruben does, that he can recover some of his hearing, maybe enough to get some of his life back.
That’s the way this very particular story becomes something more universal, overcoming denial and despair, finding purpose, traveling from hopelessness to hope.
MPA Rating: R for language throughout and brief nude images
MPA Rating: Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric and Chelsea Lee.
Credits: Directed by Darius Marder, script by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder. An Amazon release.
Running time: 2:00