Ruben (Riz Ahmed) plays the drums in front of a dark background. His hair is bleached, he is shirtless, and he is staring intensely at something off-screen.

Sound of Metal (2020) is probably not the film you think it is. At least, it certainly was not what this writer was expecting. Perhaps it was a lack of emphasis on music (in a film about a musician) or the way it unfolds almost as if it were a collection of short stories with returning characters. Whatever it might have been, Darius Marder‘s heartbreaking debut is a reminder to surrender your expectations at the door. The much-anticipated drama, about a heavy metal drummer who wakes up one day to find he is losing his hearing, is a rich and soulful character study about addiction and adaptation. 

Riz Ahmed is Ruben, one half of a two-person metal band along with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). With his bleached blonde hair and a body full of tattoos, it is easy to assume Ruben is a true rock and roller. In fact, he is a recovering addict; he and Lou lead a simple, nomadic life, living out of an airstream and touring the country playing music. Ruben’s carefully balanced life is upended, however, when he abruptly begins to lose his hearing. Doctors are not sure of the cause, but what is certain is that what is gone is not coming back, and the best he can hope for is to preserve what little hearing he has left.

The first act is jagged and disorienting (perhaps intentionally so) as Ruben alternately struggles and rages at his new circumstances. He insists on returning to the stage, as if the thrust of his sudden loss reawakens an old instinct to self-destruct. Initially, Lou seems to be the only thing that keeps him from back-sliding; concerned that the mounting stress will cause him to relapse, she insists on Ruben accepting help in the form of a Deaf community run by the grizzled and wise Joe (Paul Raci).

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) sits in a circle with other people. He is looking forward and holding up his left hand, learning American Sign Language.
“Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios via AP)

It is during this time that the film really begins to settle into its rhythms, as Marder turns a sensitive, thoughtful eye toward the Deaf community, and Ruben’s attempts to find a place in it. While some of its story beats may feel familiar, the material is constantly elevated by the confident filmmaking, and the ways in which it subverts expectations. Often, stories about living with disability tend to reach for triumph, but Marder avoids melodrama by presenting the journey as we often experience things in life, with fits and starts; both the moments of joy and reflection are often quiet, and hard-won. 

The film grew out of an unreleased documentary by Derek Cianfrance (who executive produced here) about a similar story of a heavy-metal musician who began to go deaf. Marder (who co-wrote Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines [2012]) took the story and turned it into fiction. It is little surprise why the former entrusted Marder with the material, as both men share a similar filmmaking style, relying on intimate handheld shots, uniquely structured story arcs, and a strong emphasis on performance. And boy are the performances excellent across the board.

Ahmed is by no means a household name, but he is one of our premier chameleonic performers, and his performance here is easily the best work of his career. It is a largely internal performance–not the sort of showy gamesmanship the Academy often rewards–but it is intense, layered work that anchors the emotional arc of the film. If the film belongs to Ahmed, Paul Raci and Olivia Cooke are equally devastating in supporting roles as they each play a pivotal role in Ruben’s journey.

This image shows a close-up of Riz Ahmed wearing a camouflage T-shirt and looking off-screen in a scene from
“Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios via AP)

Much will be said about the masterful use of sound design, and the work led by editor Nicolas Becker, deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way. It is easy to take the category for granted, but as sound is so integral to Ruben’s experiences, Becker and his team are able to maximize the drama by effortlessly presenting not only his new circumstances, but also by utilizing silence to such devastating effect.

By the time the film arrives at its quiet and thoughtful final moments, this writer was reduced to a sobbing mess. While Marder offers no easy solutions, it does leave the viewer with a sense of closure, or at least hope. It is an appropriately subdued finale that will surely satisfy and linger in equal measure.