Producers: Bert Homelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche, Kathy Benz and Bill Benz Director: Darius Marder Screenplay: Darius Marder and Abraham Marder Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Bidloff, Mathieu Amalric, Tom Kemp and Rena Meliszewski Distributor: Amazon Studios
It’s not often that one points to a film’s sound design as its most important element—and in this case it’s not entirely true, since Riz Ahmed’s lead performance is of at least equal significance—but Darius Marder has paid as much attention to the way we’re compelled to listen to his movie about a man who’s losing his hearing as he has to how we view it. He also has made it accessible to the hearing-impaired by adding subtitles, though “Sound of Metal” is in English.
Ahmed is Ruben Stone, a hard-rock drummer doing small-time tours in an old silver RV alongside his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), his guitarist-vocalist. A recovering heroin addict, he’s obviously been on the circuit a long time, and the frenzied sound he bangs out is literally deafening, since he suddenly starts to lose his hearing during a set; an ear pop that follows leaves him virtually deaf. When in desperation he consults a doctor (Tom Kemp), he’s told that roughly 70-80% percent of his hearing is gone for good, and advised he must avoid loud noises to try to salvage the rest. He consults an audiologist (Rena Meliszewski), who tells him that surgery to insert cochlear implants might be an alternative, but it’s an expensive procedure that can’t work miracles.
Deeply concerned, Lou arranges a visit to a rustic community run by Joe (Paul Paul), himself deaf from the effects of a bomb blast. His group is based on the premise that the deaf must see their condition not as an affliction to be overcome, but as something to be embraced as an aspect of a unique culture. He tells Lou that she should leave Ruben to become part of the community rather than struggle futilely to find a way to return to his former life. Reluctantly she does, returning—we learn—to live with her father Richard (Mathieu Amalric).
Ruben, meanwhile, is gradually assimilated into the orbit of Joe’s group. He learns some sign and lip reading, and reluctantly joins a class for young students taught by pretty Diane (Lauren Ridloff, who earned widespread praise co-starring with Joshua Jackson in the 2018 Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God”). His stay certainly softens his anger and roughness, bringing out his gentler side; but still he decides to sell the RV and his other belongings to scrape up the money for the surgery, which has some success, but not what he’d been hoping for, reengagement with Joe, Lou and Richard proves difficult.
Marder and his sound technicians have done exceptional work in transforming the film into a quasi-immersive experience using an often-muffled soundtrack to convey the experience of hearing loss, but obviously that’s an approach that can’t be employed throughout. Ahmed makes up the difference with a compelling performance that conveys Ruben’s fear, rage, refusal to submit, and realization that he must accept reality. One element that’s missing is awareness that his lifestyle choices have been a major factor in his condition, but perhaps the character’s inability to admit that is meant to be telling in itself.
The rest of the cast supports Ahmed with naturalistic turns that offer balance to his more extrovert one. The presence of many deaf people in the ensemble at Joe’s refuge adds to the sense of authenticity Marder is at pains to create, and the crafts team–cinematographer Daniel Bouquet and production designer Jeremy Woodward opt for raw, gritty images that take on a glossy veneer only toward the close, as Ruben visits Richard and Lou at his genteel home. Editor Mikkel G. Neilsen adeptly varies the pacing of sequences according to their emotional intensity, from the frenetic to the solemn, and the music by Abraham Marder and Nicolas Becker is apt.
Beginning at a high decibel level and ending sotto voce, Marder’s film takes us on an alternately searing and poignant emotional journey.