In “Sound of Metal,” first-time director Darius Marder introduces us to a world most have the luxury of never having to understand – losing the ability to hear.
Throughout the film, the presentation is created with so much craft and nuance that viewers become fully immersed in the character’s life, allowing an empathetic bond to be formed as audiences invest in the story in a way unlike most other films this year.
“Sound of Metal” follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a small-time metal band, who is rapidly and quite unexpectedly losing his hearing. Starting out as his band is playing a show, Ruben begins to experience a ringing sensation in his ears and partial hearing loss, but regains it a short while later. This is the start of what will become the hardest battle of his life.
What the filmmakers evoke so effectively is how closely our identity is tied into our senses. They are a part of who we are – they dictate how we behave and react to the world around us. For Ruben, music is his life. He is dating the only other member of the band Louise (Olivia Cooke) and they live in their airstream RV as they tour around the country. This band and his music are quite literally his entire life. When the hearing starts to fade with no signs of returning, Ruben goes into a tailspin. As the audiences finds out, it doesn’t help that Ruben is a recovering heroin addict.
Watching Ahmed manifest and flesh out this character so authentically is easily the best part of the film – and that’s no small accomplishment considering there’s a lot to like here. His subtle performance of delineating between the anxiety and fear of losing his hearing, and that of falling victim to his old habits is completely engrossing.
In order to help the transition while also staying accountable, Ruben is taken to a recovery house where he can live and attend meetings with other addicts who are also deaf. It turns out hearing loss and addiction share some of the same stages – namely the first, which is denial. Ruben spends his time looking for alternatives to avoid his noiseless fate and becomes consumed with getting a cochlear implant.
At the recovery house Ruben has a sponsor named Joe (Paul Raci), who becomes the shepherd trying to help Ruben become acquainted to his new way of life. Joe is both fatherly and hostile, doing his best to break through the walls Ruben has put up. Raci is fantastic in this role and unquestionably believable, as the relationship Ruben and Joe share throughout the film is palpable. There are certainly moments here that are so raw and personal that it feels more like we are spying on real people rather than watching a film. Raci slips into this role as if he’s been doing it his whole life.
Director Darius Marder also serves as the screenwriter, this being his second attempt after 2012’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which he co-wrote with Derek Cianfrance. The two films share a similar DNA and the idea of Marder directing this film seems natural, although I can’t help but imagine what this film would look like under Cianfrance’s direction. While the film is a strong directorial debut for Marder, there are a few beats here that are not fully realized and feel rushed.
That’s nothing to be too picky about, though, as the pros far outweigh the cons. The sound design for the film is the best of the year. The tentpoles and the blockbusters can pack their bags and go home, not that there were many this year in the first place. “Sound of Metal” is not something that can be boiled down to “clever use of audio” – this is an experience. We are fully undergoing the loss of hearing with Ruben, and it is so immersive that you cannot help but feel just as frustrated and scared as Ruben. The entire sound department will be bringing home some hardware this year.
Overall, “Sound of Metal” is a deeply emotional and personal story of survival and understanding yourself and your place in the world. The performances from Ahmed and Raci are some of the year’s best, particularly Ahmed. This is one of the year’s very best, and one you don’t want to miss.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.