Based on the title, you might expect Sound of Metal to be louder than a Michael Bay movie with a Christopher Nolan soundtrack. The film does upon on a loud note with a drummer named Ruben (Riz Ahmed) banging away on his set while his girlfriend Lou (an unrecognizable Olivia Cooke) lights up the stage. Not long after that, however, Ruben suddenly finds that he can no longer hear anything. Sound of Metal may be the best movie about the deaf experience since Children of a Lesser God. Where that film was mainly told from an able-bodied teacher’s perspective, though, Sound of Metal puts a microphone in Ruben’s head for much of the runtime. This allows us to experience Ruben’s frustration, pain, and denial every step of the way.
Ruben is determined to get a hearing implant, assuming that it will be an easy fix. Since the surgery will cost tens of thousands, Lou convinces him to visit a deaf community before doing anything rash. There, he meets a deaf mentor named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Although Raci isn’t deaf in real life, he is a Child of Deaf Adults. Also, like his character here, Raci is a war veteran and an advocate for the hearing impaired. Even more fitting, Raci comes from a rock background, leaving one to wonder if this role was written with him specifically in mind. In any case, Raci’s performance couldn’t be more authentic.
Joe tries to get Ruben to see that he’s not broken. He may be deaf, but Ruben can still live a fulfilling life. Interacting with other members of the community, Ruben slowly opens himself up to a life without hearing. All the while, though, Ruben can’t get the implant off his mind. Ruben’s biggest fear is that he’ll not only lose his livelihood, but Lou as well. Music is what keeps them together and without their band, Ruben may no longer fit into Lou’s life.
It’s established that Ruben is a recovering addict and Lou is the one who’s kept him four years sober. We never see Ruben relapse, at least now with a needle. Ruben might not need heroin anymore, but he can’t fathom a world without Lou or hearing. Sound of Metal brilliantly intertwines Ruben’s deafness with his addictive tendencies. This leads to a crucial scene between Ruben and Joe full of heartbreak, betrayal, and defeat.
Ahmed has been on the rise ever since his breakthrough supporting role in Nightcrawler. He won an Emmy for playing an addict in The Night Of and he could score an Oscar nomination for playing a different kind of addict here. Ahmed makes us feel every ounce of Ruben’s desperation as he attempts to fix himself, even as his support group tells him that there’s nothing to fix. Even when he’s not speaking his thoughts, we can see the cogs in his head moving.
The Sound of Metal marks a stunning fictional feature debut from director Darius Marder. Being a film about deafness, Marder wisely chooses to show rather than tell. What makes his film complete is its use of sound. There’s a particularly ingenious scene towards the end where the sound design alone sums up everything Ruben has lost and how much his world has changed. Actions speak louder than words, but in this film, silence is the loudest sound of all.