Bang. Crash. Bam. The ground’s shaking. It’s so humid that paint is running down the walls. Above all else, it’s the thrashing of the drum kit that proliferates among all the other noises. This is the life of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), an underground heavy metal drummer who travels the country in an RV with his lead guitarist and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) until his life is disrupted by his rapidly deteriorating hearing.
The title, “Sound of Metal,” conjures thoughts of the loud, wild and adrenaline-pumping, but the film itself puts all these feelings in the backseat in favor of a patient, thoughtful and compassionate depiction of Ruben’s struggle to adapt to a life without sound. Perhaps it’s the expectation of a thriller, such as “Whiplash,” which aids in the sudden shock of reality that Ruben must confront.
This movie is quiet in both sound and style — a challenge in a modern film industry that constantly privileges the explicit over implicit. There is something so daring about a film being as reserved as “Sound of Metal” is. It offers no maxims on life, nor any rules to live by. There are strategies to cope, but not every strategy is guaranteed to work. The process of overcoming is thoroughly examined, which may not be entirely satisfying as a traditional story.
It’s important to note in a film concerning the deaf community the lengths to which director and co-writer Darius Marder goes to represent them. Marder employed a large number of members of the deaf community to act in the film, which lends authenticity to the segments. Many portions of the film have dialogue spoken only in American Sign Language along with hardcoded subtitles, which is another effective way of submerging the viewer in hearing-impaired culture. Marder does a phenomenal job of portraying the deaf experience, not as a disability, but another way of life, a fact Ruben struggles with throughout the entire film.
To talk about Ruben would require talking about the man behind him, Ahmed, who gives a career-defining performance. Ahmed finds the right balance between anxiety, fear and outrage in each scene; he is subtle, but not so meek that he is overpowered by Ruben’s unforeseen circumstances. Ruben is an ex-drug addict and the addictive personality seeps into his need to regain his hearing. Ahmed turns “Sound of Metal” into a movie about equal parts grief and addiction, submerged in the fears of disappointing loved ones and an uncertain future.
The sound design is also inventive in the way the film places the viewer in Ruben’s shoes. The main source of audio comes from what Ruben hears himself. The sound varies; at times an enduring ringing permeates the scene, resembling tinnitus. Other times, the audience experiences total silence. By focusing on an auditory point of view, the audience is able to experience the same agitation Ruben feels. There isn’t a disconnect between the story and film technique, and it’s the simple choice of allowing Ruben’s hearing loss to guide the diegetic audio that allows for more understanding of his condition.
The best parts of “Sound of Metal” come from Ruben’s interactions with his girlfriend Lou and his recent mentor Joe (Paul Raci), who both try their hardest to help Ruben push ahead to the next chapter in his life. The acting and dialogue are open and honest, with both parties offering steps toward bliss, but never admitting they hold the keys to it.
“Sound of Metal” is a crushing, torrential exploration of yearning and acceptance. It’s ponderous and sedated, sometimes to a point where the movie feels like it’s at a complete halt, but it also benefits its painfully wistful tone. There are no cascading cymbals or thunderous drum rolls, but it’s through the vibrations left after the banging that “Sound of Metal” is able to wallow and survive.
“Sound of Metal” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.