A punk drummer loses his hearing in Darius Marder’s intense, layered personal drama, with an intense lead performance by Ahmed.
You don’t get introduced to the music heavy metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed), adores in Sound of Metal. You get embedded, absorbed. Ruben loves what he does with a passion, Ahmed offering up what just might be the performance of a lifetime as an artist who’s carved out his place in the world and is happy for it. Later, as he begins to lose his hearing, we feel as crushed as he does; it’s not hard to imagine the terror of seeing your body betray you and keep you from your life’s dream.
Ruben’s personal life risks imploding as well since his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) is the singer in the two-person band they’ve made successful enough to tour on. They are also the furthest thing from Sid and Nancy, so adorable they’re impossible not to get invested in as they drink smoothies Ruben cooks up for them in their trailer and speak sweet nothings as they drive to various shows. Lou recognizes what’s happening and what must be done far before Ruben. But like most people, he refuses to listen to the doctor, playing a show right after he’s told to avoid loud noises as his hearing deteriorates further.
Lou is also the one who basically saves Ruben’s life, not only finding a facility for Deaf addicts so he can learn to cope with what’s happening but forcing him to stay after she sees the self-destruction the facility director predicted. Cooke deserves her share of acclaim for a role that goes far beyond the supportive girlfriend stereotype – Lou and Ruben’s parting feels real and heartbreaking, a breaking of two hearts that must be done to save them both.
Once Ruben commits to the treatment, he’s at first lost in a foreign land where the language and customs are unknown to him. It’s a remote place filled with other Deaf addicts who have all adapted to a world that treats them as not only different but lesser. They’ve responded by deciding not to regard their lack of hearing as a disability, and Sound of Metal beautifully makes a case for this decision by focusing on the everyday lives of those in the Deaf community itself, not how outsiders react to it. No one is trying to “cure” their deafness because they don’t see it as a problem that needs to be fixed.
Cooke deserves her share of acclaim for a role that goes far beyond the supportive girlfriend stereotype.
As Ruben gradually adapts to this world and even finds a place for himself in it, he finds his idea and image of himself transforming. Lou is also going through a similar transformation, even as she remains supportive from afar. Ruben still clings to the hope of recovering his old life through a cochlear implant that will allow him to hear again. This decision is also incompatible with the life he could potentially have, putting him at odds with his new support network’s refusal to treat deafness like an illness. It’s one of the only moments where Sound of Metal feels close-minded, condemning Ruben for choosing another way of coping with his hearing loss.
You could make a case that Ruben reacts to music and his deafness in much the same way he did his addiction, but that would be an oversimplification. It’s not just the music he wants to recapture; it’s his relationship with Lou, four years strong, which blossomed after they both essentially saved each other from destructive addictions. (His was heroin, hers was self-harm.) When they reunite near the end of the film, it’s clear that Lou has undergone a journey of her own – one that could be a film in itself. It might even make a few points about living as one of those women who (unconsciously) adopts the costume and customs of whichever man is nearest and dearest. Or perhaps just most useful. This time, it’s Ruben who carries that tragic awareness.
If Sound of Metal is a bit reminiscent of the earlier work of writer-director Darius Marder‘s frequent collaborator Derek Cianfrance, who made The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine before the far more underwhelming The Light Between Oceans, it’s in a far more tender, optimistic fashion than Cianfrance typically allows. It’s not only thanks to Marder’s direction, but Ahmed’s passionate intensity, that Sound of Metal succeeds in its own right. It’s a story where a kind of peace born of studied acceptance is the triumph, rather than the casual consolation of easy answers.