The cruelest test of how much something means to you is to take that thing away. For Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), music is how he enters the world. As the drummer in a heavy metal power duo, Ruben pounds out his fury, frustration, and joy into the floor toms and crash cymbals. When we first see him, Ruben is lost within his own energy. All that gets obliterated when his hearing suddenly disappears: His usual wall of sound gets replaced by a strange, deafening silence.
That’s the setup for Sound of Metal, the story of a man islanded from everything he loves. Ruben’s deafness pushes him from Lou (Olivia Cooke), his girlfriend and bandmate. He’s a recovering heroin addict, and she’s terrified this setback will push him back to using. Meanwhile, Ruben desperately seeks a quick medical fix, but his doctor doesn’t have easy answers. He suggests that he can play the drums, like an automated click-track, but Lou knows this will never do.
As they search for answers, Lou finds a way to kill two birds with one stone: Somewhere in the countryside, a Vietnam vet named Joe (Paul Raci) runs a rehab shelter for deaf people. Joe agrees to take Ruben in, on the condition that Ruben comes to terms with his deafness. He must learn American Sign Language, and confront his profound anger and grief. Every morning, Joe has Ruben sit in a silent room and scrawl his thoughts into a notebook. After some hesitation, Ruben begins to pour out his feelings.
The second act of Sound of Metal isn’t so much Joe bringing Ruben back to life, as nudging him toward a brand new one. This sets up a subtle conflict between the two men: Where Ruben still harbors hope for a surgical option, Joe preaches that deafness isn’t a disease or a disability. It’s simply a different way of life.
Darius Marder, who directs and co-writes, does a remarkable job of capturing the world as Ruben perceives it. Early on, Ruben and Lou create a blistering barrage of power chords and drum breaks. As his hearing diminishes, Marder occasionally reduces the soundtrack to muffled noises. Eventually, when Ruben loses everything, so do we. It’s a frightening thing to witness, and Marder makes sure we feel every ounce of Ruben’s panic.
This masterful filmmaking wouldn’t matter a damn if it weren’t for the performances. Ahmed absolutely throws himself into the role of Ruben: In preparation, he learned the drums and how to sign, but what’s even more impressive is the raw, real emotion he brings to the part. We believe Ruben’s pain, and that makes it all the more moving when he learns to pull himself off the bottom and live again.
As the hearing son of deaf parents, Raci is another revelation: Joe is a careful blend of surrogate father and brusque mentor, and Raci never makes us doubt his gruff love. In many ways, this character represents the warm emotional core of the film. He seeks to bring stillness to Ruben’s new quiet. Finally, Cooke brings a wounded sweetness to Lou, who fears that everything she can do still won’t be enough. Combined with the underrated Little Fish, Cooke has had quite the year thus far.
Sound of Metal is a great film, replete with sly humor and aching sadness. It’s less about Ruben’s deafness than what he does next: Even in profound loss, there is the potential for spiritual gain. Ahmed could very well win the Oscar for Best Actor–he’s that good. (Raci is a dark horse, as well.) If you’re looking for compelling drama, this one is well worth the stream.
120 min. R. Amazon Prime.