Believe it or not, our ears are incredibly sensitive; most of us don’t seem to pay enough attention to all the external noise until there’s a certain degree of damage to compromise our hearing. Enough experience with concerts over the years have proven to me I have to take my ears seriously and cut them an occasional break. Not everyone listens to the warning signs; all they care about is the rush that comes with being loud and reckless. That idea alone made it difficult not to relate to Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), a passionate drummer who may have kicked the harder stuff but is still very much addicted to life. His based-on-true-life plight has been put to screen in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, all too well acknowledging the desperation when cut off from anything, and the introspective healing that parallels the need to walk away.
Years of drumming in a fast-paced punk band have left Ruben’s hearing to take a sharp decline, and time is turning into a luxury. Especially while in the middle of a small venue tour across the US in their tricked-out RVs with multiple bells and whistles. And as he plays, all he can eventually sense is a muffled pink noise, nearly sounding metallic, distracting enough to throw any timekeeper off their axis. As much as Ruben can show confidence before his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), doubtfulness sinks in quickly. He’s overeager to seek a solution, but it will not come cheap. Option A: separate himself from all loud noise to protect his remaining percentage of hearing, and prematurely end his music career. Or Option B: save up $80,000 for cochlear implants, which would risk his aural perceptiveness to shift into the synthetic and stale.
While weighing his options amid crippling denial, Lou puts in a good word to an AA for the ASL community to help cool Ruben down and inject a newfound clarity. He hesitates, so Lou must nudge and split away from him for the sake of his focus and sanity. Despite his apprehension, Ruben is certainly in good enough hands with Joe (Paul Raci), a meditative yet brutally honest facilitator looking to get to the root of his addiction and build his comfort zone with pure stillness, working closely with students and housemates.
But it is not completely quiet; even if one is deaf, the mere sensation of sound is just expressed in a differently adaptive manner. Marder, his brother Abraham and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (The Light Between Oceans) channel that idea with growing gusto, as the other four senses work harder to compensate. Therefore, the more we know of Ruben, the deeper we are into his head, flaws and all, clear-sighted, rebellious, and garbled. Cinematographer Daniel Bouquet captures that hard punk vision, while eclectic sound designer and editor Nicolas Becker (Arrival) pinpoints the slippery slope Ruben trails down despite the outside help, a web made more complex through his bullish attitude.
And from that first frame of bliss to the last portraying dire recompense, Mr. Ahmed is locked in, empathic, never losing the beat. All while adding his own Buddy Rich-esque touches, digging deep into the emotional and physical expectations of his character. Going back to Nightcrawler and Rogue One, his work has always carried that thrill to “live for the moment.” Sound of Metal proudly runs on the highest end of that concept. Having had to learn a new language and instrument, and consolidating the two for a new form of authentic communication, that’s a commendable trait in itself in that it may not just be a simple character he’s portraying, but a more human version of himself, hoping to the heavens that his actions won’t have the potentially negative consequences they could bring.
Marder is all over that power of consequence and the echoes they carry, in a fully realistic sense. Much of the supporting cast is of the deaf community, and their own auditory, borderline musical sensibilities are poured out so effortlessly onto the moving image. It’s most noticeable in nontraditional instrument play (by way of buckets), showing off Ahmed’s more playful side. His rage side emerges with a finite neatness, whether it’s keeping his hands busy with woodwork, or smashing a bagel with his fist only to put it back together, or try to. And his innocent romantic can’t completely go away, paying many a price to keep his thing with Lou from breaking down the way many bands tend to. Cooke, last seen by a wide American audience in Ready Player One possesses a wild fury and sensical chemistry with Ahmed, the pair bringing things home with maddening uncertainty. If only her father Richard (a quizzingly underused Matthieu Amalric) could’ve been just a bit more supportive.
Making freshly drafted paths in the way character with disabilities are portrayed on film, Marder never once shies away from making his story as honest about its sense of humanity as possible. To embrace stillness in one’s life is to understand what’s weighing us down. We may be walking on the straight and narrow, but we’re not still holding onto a common flaw. Ruben’s flaw is constantly craving the next high, holding tightly to that heart of a rocker/mind of an addict philosophy, and the ramifications which follow. Sound of Metal speaks to that raw truth with no corner ignored, making for a refreshing spin on what would in the wrong hands be a cheesy feel-good story with no honesty behind the adverse struggle. With Ahmed at the lead, it accomplishes that departure from the norm, ever so immersed, deliberate, and never certain of what’s next, while we’re all on that journey to healing. (A; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Sound of Metal opens in select theaters November 20, streaming on Prime Video December 4; rated R for brief nude images and language throughout; 130 minutes.