It starts with a ringing. Ruben, one half of the noise-rock duo and Decibel cover-story couple Blackgammon (think Lightning Bolt if fronted by a throat-shredded Diamanda Galas), is putting out merchandise, limbering up for a modest gig in Missouri, shooting the shit with his tourmates about soundchecks. Then the drummer starts hearing this shrill, piercing sound. Everything else becomes muted, or drops out entirely. He’s not sure what just happened, but it doesn’t seem to be going away. In fact, whatever is happening seems to be getting worse. By the time Ruben gets himself to a local doctor, everything sounds as if he’s several meters underwater. He’s informed that close to 80 percent of his hearing is gone. If he wants to preserve the 20 percent that remains, the gent had better act fast.
When the floor drops out from under this musician, all we hear is the ringing, too — this is the go-to power move of Sound of Metal, writer-director Darius Marder’s narrative feature debut, the ace in the ear-hole it plays whenever it wants to pull a viewer in. To be fair, when you’ve cast Rogue One‘s Riz Ahmed as your lead, and have the advantage of filming the sinewy, charismatic British-Pakistani actor covered in tattoos, you already have moviegoers’ attention. But this is story that needs us to walk a proverbial mile in its protagonist’s shoes, or rather, to drop us in a partial sensory-deprivation tank that lets us feel just as disoriented, dizzy, desperate for what passed as “normal” a day ago. The soundtrack will suddenly switch to low rumbles, muffled reverberations, indecipherable voices, nerve-jangling feedback. It is not a gimmick. It’s a way to gain empathy without, literally, bells or whistles. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. And as the film makes abundantly clear, you don’t know what you’ve gained until you’re forced to face the loss of something taken for granted.
Destabilizing is a mild word for what Ruben and his singer-guitarist girlfriend Lou (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s Olivia Cooke) experience as his hearing rapidly deteriorates. He’s worried that his entire way of life is gone; she’s concerned that Ruben, an ex-heroin addict with four years of sobriety under his belt, is about to backslide in a big way. Lou is the one who locates a “clean” house, run by Joe (Paul Raci), in the center of a deaf community. To stay on the straight and narrow, she has to let Ruben do this on his own. He’s reluctant to accept his situation as anything other than temporary — once he gets cash for cochlear implants, they can go back to rocking crowds, right? On his first day, he (and we) are strangers in a land of laughing, signing housemates, unable to communicate. Joe assigns chores to his wards. Ruben’s job: “Learn how to be deaf.”
Sound of Metal understands the importance of immersing you in this brave new noiseless world, but its real strength may be its powers of observation. A screenwriter who contributed his voice to Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines script, Marder shares a certain fascination with that director regarding closed-off, anger-driven difficult men, and his constantly stalking, skulking camera seems synced to Ruben’s jittery, agitated nervous system. He’s a volatile hero, a guy capable of tenderness but much more comfortable caveman-pounding the shit of out a drum kit. Yet Metal’s best, or at least most satisfying, scenes simply hang back and quietly chronicle his slow adjustment to life after deafness. We see him bond with his hearing-impaired compadres, notably an ALS teacher of kids; we see him gradually integrate himself into a community. You get a sense of daily routines and everyday minutiae within an insular world that doesn’t often get a lot of screen time, or is rendered without a sense of novelty.
This soundless paradise Ruben has found can only last so long when the carrot of potential “recovery” dangles on a stick perpetually out of reach, which leads to a third act featuring recriminations, reunions, Matthieu Amalric as a French songwriter, and another sonic deep-dive involving the distorting effects of an entirely different kind of hearing. It also leads to a wonderful final moment, in which a comment made by Joe regarding the embrace of “a world of stillness” makes itself manifest. (A brief word, by the way, about the performer who portrays the house leader: Raci is a CODA (child of a deaf adult) and a wiry, actor/musician whose previous journeymen parts included characters named “Homeless Man,” “Scruffy Man” and “Drunk Guy.” He also steals every scene he’s in while still being a clutch team player. This is what we call a breakout role. Attention must be paid.) The Toronto screening was captioned as well as subtitled, which not only had the effect of keying in non-hearing viewers but also articulating atmospheric sound for those who process it solely as audio. It’s silence, however, that genuinely evens the playing field. Everyone “hears” the ending in the exact same way.
Yet you leave Sound of Metal realizing that, as effective as it is in terms of depicting difference without alienating anyone, this film probably works best as a showcase for its star. For all of Ahmed’s facilities with playing big (Venom), broad (Four Lions), brave (Rogue One), dim (Nightcrawler) and in-too-deep (The Night Of), he has rarely been given the chance to take such a meaty role and underplay it. Other than a couple of understandably histrionic outbursts, the 36-year-old actor is allowed to keep things at simmer level, and it grounds everything around him. The big takeaway isn’t that he can make less seem not just more but also intimate and epic simultaneously. So much of the film rests on him selling you this man’s experience with bare bones expressions. You get everything you need and then some. (It’s a personification of one of the movie’s themes: work with your limitations, then recast them as advantages.) Ahmed is the reason this film will eventually get a distributor, many of whom were circling at the premiere screening last night. He’s also the reason you need to see this.