I can’t imagine a worse living nightmare for a musician than to slowly start losing your hearing and then one day wake up and you can’t hear anything at all. Not only is something that so many of us take for granted every day snatched away, but for someone whose career or passion is built on making and crafting sound, it’s a cruel twist of dramatic irony.
In the drama “Sound of Metal,” directed and co-written by Darius Marder, a drummer begins to experience just that, and since he is in a metal group with his girlfriend, the loss of his hearing is something he ultimately did to himself.
But unlike many films that take life-changing events or deal with protagonists with a disability, this story doesn’t turn up the waterworks or the Oscar-bait look and feel, instead going on a much more realistic path that can also seem slow-paced or even meditative.
What keeps the film propelling forward and likely connecting with a lot of viewers is the central performance by Riz Ahmed, a British actor with a steady 15-year career who has propelled himself to superstardom with recent hits and critical acclaim. And if early awards buzz is any indication, Ahmed’s performance here is bound to earn more acclaim in the coming months.
Following a series of adrenaline-fueled performances, itinerant metal drummer Ruben (played by Ahmed) begins to experience intermittent hearing loss. When a specialist tells him his condition will rapidly worsen, he thinks his music career — and life — is over.
His bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) checks the recovering heroin addict into a secluded sober house for the deaf in hopes it will prevent a relapse and help him learn to adapt to his new situation.
With the help of the community’s leader Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben is welcomed into a community that accepts him just as he is as he begins to learn American Sign Language and love life in a new way. But as Lou appears to move on and make her own music, Ruben has to choose between his equilibrium and the drive to reclaim the life he once knew.
While the strength of Ahmed’s performance is the central piece that makes the film work, one of the most impressive choices to set “Sound of Metal” apart from other movies about deaf characters is the sound design itself, allowing a couple minutes at a time or even entire scenes play out from Ruben’s point of view experiencing the lack of sound.
At the same time, it makes you appreciate the “normal” sounds even more, whether it’s birds or insects in a field, coffee dripping into a pot or the sounds of kids giggling when Ruben begins volunteering at the school for the deaf. As scenes go back and forth from inside Ruben’s head to outside, that clever sound design helps to really understand what’s happening to him.
The opening shot is of Ahmed at the drumkit, looking in pique physical condition and delivering an intense percussion performance. Not only did he have to learn ASL and act as if he couldn’t hear but he had to learn how to be a convincingly good drummer, which both helped sell the rest of the performance as Ahmed holds the emotions inside and lets his actions speak for themselves.
Although Ahmed himself is not deaf, the film features many people who are in the scenes at the community where Ruben stays. One of the story’s themes that is mentioned several times is that being deaf is not a bad thing or something to be ashamed of, and so many of these real people prove that in these scenes.
But Ruben’s struggles with his new reality go much deeper than not being able to hear or play music like he used to, because as a recovering addict he has to face his own issues that have nothing to do with his music career or being able to hear. And that’s when the third act pushes this film from good to great.
While the rest of the filmmaking at work is fairly conventional and not even noticeable — none of the sets or costumes or cinematography really stand out — that only helps strengthen the performances, especially by Ahmed, and show this kind of story as something real people go through all the time.