Riz Ahmed is the sort of frantic screen actor who always looks like he might jut out of the frame, and in “Sound of Metal,” he’s trapped. As Ruben, the heavy-metal drummer going deaf at the center of the mesmerizing debut from writer-director Darius Marder, Ahmed conveys the complex frustrations of losing touch with the world around him no matter how much he fights to hold onto it. This devastating conundrum relies on the best use of sound design in recent memory, as Marder immerses viewers within the confines of Ruben’s deteriorating relationship to the world around him, and he sorts through the wreckage to construct a new one. Ahmed’s brilliant performance coasts on a complex soundscape that resonates even in total silence.
From the moment Ruben appears onscreen, Marder turns the volume up. Slamming away at his drum set in the heat of a blaring show, Ruben appears to have the ideal routine to suit his talents. Living in a ramshackle RV with his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), he’s immersed in a tour and has found a partner in crime to keep his life in balance. As the slender couple roams around their mobile home to the rhythms of classic jazz, their jitteriness hints at the history of addiction that comes to bear later on; at the same time, it’s clear that they’ve moved past that chapter into a powerful union.
Ruben’s blindsided when, without warning, the music muffles into a dull whir one night, sending him on a desperate search for a doctor. Ahmed’s face embodies the sheer horror of the situation as he learns that his hearing is almost gone, leaving him unable to comprehend the majority of the words around him. Medical professionals don’t waste time on why it’s happened — could be the noisecore drumming, could be an autoimmune condition — because the bottom line is the same: It’s not coming back, and he needs to preserve whatever hearing he has left. Instead, he follows his instincts right back to the stage, until it nearly destroys him.
The movie’s first disorienting act unfolds like the rock world’s answer to “The Wrestler,” the story of a grimy musician committed to the physical toll of his art to the point of willful ignorance. But Lou, whom Cooke plays with a convincing blend of empathy and anger, won’t have any of it. Marder gives us snippets of Ruben’s declining condition as the couple argues through the situation, juggling one-sided calls with their manager until he begrudgingly gets help.
That decision pitches the movie into an engrossing middle section, as Ruben enlists in a remote deaf community for recovering addicts and gradually immerses himself in its unique ecosystem. Overseen by no-nonsense lip reader Joe (Paul Raci), the home provides Ruben with the chance to come to terms with his deafness rather than rushing to gather funds for a cochlear impact. Raci, a child of a deaf adult who sings in the band Wicked World ASL Rock, has a defiant screen presence that suggests Tim Blake Nelson by way of Marc Maron. The overseer sees potential in Ruben’s feisty attitude, pushing him via tough live to make peace with his condition. As Ruben begins to learn sign language, hang around the property, and even bond with the deaf children in a neighboring elementary school, “Sound of Metal” suggests he could very well land on a trajectory toward new beginnings.
But life has a tendency to follow jagged paths, and Ruben’s relationship to his former life leads him to take a series of desperate acts that threaten to ruin his progress. Marder, who wrote the movie with his brother Abraham, drops small details that point to Ruben’s complex inner conflict as he struggles to sort through his priorities. Even the movie’s warmer moments come tinged with the uneasiness that it all might unravel at any moment. Marder previously scripted Derek Cianfrance’s unnerving character study “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which similarly shifted threw gruff, masculine characters into jolting scenarios that forced them into quieter terrain. And like Cianfrance’s work as a whole, “Sound of Metal” injects visceral, edgy circumstances with remarkable sensitivity.
But that tricky balance wouldn’t work without Ahmed’s embodiment of the challenge at hand: The actor exhibits a furious, shell-shocked demeanor for the bulk of the movie, and it’s always a convincing display. (Joe aptly compares Ruben’s frozen expression to an owl.) Ahmed’s so believable that he keeps the suspense of the drama in play even as it pushes into contrived circumstances during the prolonged final act, and eventually takes a melodramatic plunge. The late addiction of family backstory, with a glorified cameo by Mathieu Amalric as Lou’s discerning father, has a shoehorned-in quality that feels as though it were cribbed from a lesser movie. As much as Marder excels at building up to these circumstances, he can’t quite land the full package.
Fortunately, the movie arrives at a solitary moment that brings its grungy poetry to a satisfying finish. After one scene in which applause blurs to a deafening hiss, Marder brings us back to silence, foregrounding the way that Ruben must disassociate with a life that’s no longer sustainable. (Much credit must go to the sound department overseen by supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker, who had smaller credits on films like “Gravity” and Arrival.”) For much of the movie Ruben exudes the desperation of a man willing to restore his hearing at all costs; the emotional weight of this poignant drama stems from his ability to arrive at a new revelation. “Sound of Metal” is ultimately about what it means to march to the beat of a different drum when the familiar music stops for good.
“Sound of Metal” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.