“Sound of Metal”, which had a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in last September but was belatedly released on Amazon Prime early in this month due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is an extraordinary drama film full of empathy and understanding. As closely observing its musician hero’s sudden physical disability, the movie lets us immerse in his confused and frustrated state of mind, and it surely helps that the movie is firmly anchored by one of the best performances of this year.
The movie opens with the latest public performance of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), a drummer who has worked and lived with his partner/girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) for years. Although their duo heavy metal band is not that popular in their underground music field, they have been mostly happy together as passionately throwing themselves into their music for years, and they are currently going through a small tour at present. As moving from one spot to another by their recreational vehicle which also functions as their current home, they support each other a lot with loving care and affection, and they are also eagerly waiting for the release of their next album.
And then something happens to Ruben on one day. He suddenly finds himself not being able to hear sounds and voices that well, and he manages to hide this from Lou while going through their tour schedule as usual, but then there comes a point where he cannot possibly go on with his pretense. When he is recommended to go to a specialist, he starts to fear the worst, and, unfortunately, his fear turns out to be right. After going through a series of tests on his hearing ability, the specialist notifies to Ruben that his hearing ability has been considerably deteriorated for some unknown reason, and he also warns to Ruben that this status will only get worse if Ruben does not do anything for slowing down what has been already started on him with no possibility of recovery.
Understandably quite shocked and devastated, Ruben keeps performing with Lou as if nothing serious happened, and then he comes to realize how futile that is. Through its effective sound design, the movie occasionally makes Ruben’s loss of hearing quite palpable to our ears, and we come to empathize more with his mounting fear and disorientation. No matter how much he clings to his denial, things are indeed getting worse for him, and Lou soon notices something odd about his performance.
In the end, Ruben has no choice but to reveal his loss of hearing to Lou, and, because of his addiction problem in the past, Lou becomes worried about the possibility of her boyfriend getting off the wagon due to the stress from his loss of hearing. Ruben, who has incidentally been sober for 4 years, admits that he cannot help but get quite nervous and agitated, but he needs a special kind of narcotics anonymous group meeting considering his current condition, and that is certainly not something he can easily find.
Fortunately, thanks to some efforts from his current narcotics anonymous sponsor, Ruben and his girlfriend are informed that there is a suitable place for him. It is a small private facility for deaf recovering addicts, and it also happens to be not so far from their current location. Although Ruben is reluctant even after meeting Joe (Paul Raci), a deaf Vietnam War veteran and recovering addict who is in the charge of this facility, Lou believes that he really needs to stay there for a while – especially after witnessing how unstable and volatile her boyfriend has become due to his increasingly difficult struggle with his loss of hearing.
Once Lou makes her point very clear to Ruben and then leaves, Ruben has no choice but to check into the facility, and the movie calmly observes how he struggles to get accustomed to his current condition as well as his new environment. He initially feels isolated as he cannot communicate with his fellow deaf recovering addicts via sign language, but, under Joe’s benevolent guidance, he slowly gets used to his new circumstance in addition to learning sign language. As time goes by, he feels more comfortable with his loss of hearing, and he also finds that his musical skills are still useful during several scenes which will probably remind you of those similar scenes in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986).
However, Ruben is also conflicted about whether he can continue to live with his hearing disability, and the screenplay by director Darius Marder and his co-writer/composer Abraham Marder, which is based on the story by Darius Marder and co-executive producer Derek Cianfrance, wisely recognizes the complex aspects of his situation as maintaining its non-judgmental attitude. It looks like Ruben may regain his hearing ability to some degree via cochlear implant, but, not so surprisingly, there is a price to pay besides that expensive medical fee, and Ruben belatedly comes to realize what he unwisely discarded without much thought.
Although its epilogue part is a little too long, the movie is still supported well by the strong performance from Riz Ahmed, who has been one of the most interesting new actors during last several years since he attracted my attention for the first time via his darkly comic performance in British black comedy film “Four Lions” (2010). Instead of merely externalizing his character’s thoughts and feelings, Ahmed ably internalizes them via small details and nuances to be conveyed by his expressive face, and that is why a few big emotional moments from him are quite effective.
The other main performers in the film are also solid on the whole. While Olivia Cooke is convincing in her scenes with Ahmed, Paul Raci, who is incidentally a prominent figure in the deaf community as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), effortlessly exudes his character’s hard-earned wisdom and understanding, and Lauren Ridloff and many other deaf main cast members in the film bring considerable authenticity and realism to the story.
Thanks to its sensitive and thoughtful storytelling, “Sound of Metal”, which is Marder’s first feature film, does not end up becoming something sappy or sentimental, and you will not easily forget Ahmed’s powerful performance in the film. Although nothing is certain for his character even at the end of the story, his silent face speaks volumes to us without seemingly signifying anything, and you will come to reflect more on his character’s emotional journey.