Sound of Metal is a testament to how even the most familiar stories can still land with tremendous impact when told with confidence and care. Watching a character learn to overcome — or at least cope with — immeasurable pain (be it grief, addiction or physical trauma) can be cathartic. But it’s also the reason audiences are treated to loads of sentimental junk each year like The Blind Side or Ben is Back. With his first film, director and co-writer Darius Marder dutifully hits all the tropes one expects in a story about recovery. Yet Marder wisely allows the vulnerable lead performance of Riz Ahmed (of Nightcrawler and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and honest-to-god strong direction to elevate this well-worn material into something deeply compelling.
A single-take opening shows Metal’s protagonist, Ruben (Ahmed), during a typical night at work — drumming for a heavy metal band fronted by his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke, a bit underserved here). Ruben’s expression is both focused and restless, and we find that’s more or less the mindset in which Ruben operates on a daily basis. Living out of an RV on tour keeps Ruben spinning like a hamster on a wheel, and the free-wheeling banter between him and Lou while on the road between gigs indicate the two have a sturdy bond to balance out the unpredictability of their rock ‘n roll lifestyle.
That lifestyle is upended when, minutes before a show, Ruben loses his hearing almost entirely. The moment is the first of several times where Marder uses sound design to place the audience within the character’s terrifying point of view. The effect is similar to that of being submerged underwater, where the clarity of sounds are diminished to a wall of muffled sounds. Ruben’s reaction to such an alarming development reveals a great deal about who he is; rather than freak the hell out like most of us would, he tries to play it cool and manages to make it through the band’s set.
However, a rushed visit to the doctor the next morning — before which he makes sure to slink out to avoid telling Lou what’s going on — doesn’t bring good news: Ruben’s officially deaf, and his hearing isn’t coming back.
Against his doctor’s pleas, Ruben wants to ignore the problem, scrounge up some scratch for cochlear implants and proceed with plans to tour and record an album. Lou, rather than watch someone she loves destroy themselves, boards a plane to go to her father’s so Ruben can get help at a rehabilitation center for the deaf run by a tough-love guru named Joe (Paul Raci).
Joe’s halfway house specializes in deaf folks who are also recovering addicts, a camp into which Ruben — being four years clean from heroin — squarely falls. From this point on, Sound of Metal takes recognizable shape as a recovery tale, with the unique wrinkle that our character isn’t so much recovering as having to completely relearn how to communicate with those around him. Still, it’s clear from the outset that Ruben has long struggled to achieve anything resembling inner contentment. His recent deafness now forces him to reckon with the inner turmoil from which drugs, music and Lou used to distract him.
The movie’s narrative doesn’t offer anything in the way of surprises, and that predictability might be a dealbreaker for some. But what makes Metal such an auspicious debut is Marder’s sensitive direction of Ahmed and the ensemble of mostly non-professional actors. A scene where Ruben teaches a classroom of deaf students how to play drums on plastic buckets might be insufferable in another actor’s hands, but Ahmed never oversells Ruben’s transformation from feeling indignant rage over his predicament to learning how to find peace inside a moment.
Until now, Ahmed has mostly been relegated to supporting roles, and he doesn’t waste this opportunity as a lead on grandiose, Oscar-baiting moments. Given the extreme nature of his character’s arc, Ahmed’s restraint is what ultimately keeps Metal from feeling like more of the same.