A good friend of mine, who has a disability, often shares with me his opinions of how cinema has looked at the various challenges as something to fix. He speaks about how through ableism, people get categorized as suffering from a disability rather than living with one. Some in the deaf community, for example, consider those who wish to hear again to be traitors. It’s with this in mind that I came to watch Sound Of Metal, the narrative feature debut of Darius Marder (The Place Beyond The Pines), who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Abraham, based on a story by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine). The story concerns a hard rock drummer and addict who experiences hearing loss and enters a rehab center to reconcile with his new state of being.
Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) stars as Ruben, the aforementioned drummer who, when the story begins, thrashes out a set with his lead singer/girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) as part of their popular but decidedly small RV tour. Almost immediately, Ruben senses an issue with his hearing, and the fantastic sound design by Nicholas Becker immerses us in Ruben’s plight, with high pitches, underwater-style rumblings, and more. We as an audience feel just as disoriented as Ruben, and it’s a conceit explored throughout. Without health insurance, Ruben has few choices and cannot afford the Cochlear implants a doctor discusses with him. Ignoring the physician’s advice, Ruben performs at another show and further damages his sense of hearing.
When Lou cancels the tour and leaves Ruben at the door of a rehab facility, you can feel his heartbreak. Ruben clearly lives for music and feels trapped in a hopeless situation. The facility manager, Joe (beautifully played by Paul Raci), takes away Ruben’s comforts, including access to his phone, a computer, or anything from the outside world. Slowly, oh so slowly, Ruben learns ASL and finds a place within the deaf community. He befriends people like Jenn (Chelsea Lee), a genderqueer deaf person who oozes confidence, teaching Ruben there is life after a hearing loss. Ruben also has a nice chemistry with one of the teachers, Diane (The Walking Dead’s Lauren Ridloff), and what could easily have served as a tired romance trope remains a gentle, platonic relationship.
We watch Ruben go through the many ups and downs of his hearing loss, from anger to denial to perhaps some unexpected places. Ahmed gives a gentle, soulful performance with flickers of rage when he feels especially unmoored. That the film works at all remains largely due to his commitment to the role. Unfortunately, as soon as the story leaves the rock world, it descends into a sluggish, PSA-quality tale. At the risk of sounding tacky, I think I expected Whiplash and got a concussion instead. The issues of the deaf community no doubt get handled with the utmost of sensitivity, but things sometimes feel a little too nicey-nice to work as drama. Don’t get me wrong, some of this has an intensity and really makes you feel Ruben’s loneliness.
Additionally, certain plot strands never pan out, such as the several scenes of Ruben sneaking onto Joe’s computer, risking getting caught and expelled from the facility. Same goes for Ruben breaking the rules by entering his RV and selling it. I’m guessing the filmmakers didn’t want to goose up the drama, but it results in a certain flatness at times. Olivia Cooke’s performance rings true, never seeming like an actor playing a singer, but her character takes a backseat for most of the film.
After quite a long slog, the film recovers in its third act with a fascinating plot development and an ending of quiet beauty. Thanks to Riz Ahmed’s gorgeous performance, to his journey to accept stillness and peace, and the sensitivity to the deaf community, the final moment honors those living with hearing loss in a simple yet profound way.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Sound Of Metal is currently in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime.