The first time I took notice of Riz Ahmed was in 2016, when he starred in HBO’s “The Night Of” opposite John Turturro. His career got a bigger boost that year when he was cast in the Star Wars movie “Rogue One.” He’s had other roles since then, but now he’s stepping up to the leading man category as Ruben in “Sound Of Metal.”
Ruben and Louise are a neo-punk rock act — she sings and plays guitar while he plays drums — who also live together in an RV as they tour the country from gig to gig. One night, all of a sudden, Ruben’s hearing starts to go. Not entirely at first, but diminished to the point where everything seems muffled. When things don’t get better, he doesn’t say anything to Louise, but goes to a doctor to find out what’s going on. It turns out he’s lost 85% of his hearing, and it’s not coming back. In fact, it’s only going to get worse until he goes completely deaf. The doctor tells him about cochlear implants, but they cost $40,000-80,000, and Ruben doesn’t have that kind of money.
He’s convinced he can still play drums behind Lou, but without being able to see her face he misses cues, and ends up running off stage, understandably upset. He finally shares the bad news with Lou, who calls someone — it’s not clear if it’s their manager, or a friend, or perhaps Ruben’s sponsor who helped him kick his heroin addiction four years earlier — and makes arrangements for Ruben to go to a special rehab house for the newly deaf, run by a guy named Joe.
Joe, a war veteran who lost his hearing in Vietnam, lays down the law to Ruben. He can stay if he gives up his cell phone and the keys to his RV and parts ways with Louise, who is not allowed to stick around. Joe also explains to Ruben the difference between deaf and Deaf. The first is a condition, while the second is a community, like the one Joe oversees. To be part of that community, Ruben will need to learn American Sign Language, so Joe enrolls him at a nearby elementary school for deaf kids. Although he can’t hear, Joe speaks in modest tones, never raising his voice, yet getting his points across forcefully nonetheless.
From there, we watch Ruben slowly get past the denial stage of his crisis and into acceptance. As he is thrust into a wordless environment, he has to adapt, while still scheming of some way to get enough money to get the implants he thinks will return his life to what it had been.
It’s here that Ahmed really shows off his acting chops, playing an intense, conflicted character who is stuck in a hole and struggling to dig himself out. It’s clear that, in preparation for the role, he spent a considerable amount of time learning how to play the drums, and probably as much effort studying ASL. It pays off, as he’s completely believable in every aspect throughout.
Paul Raci is nothing short of terrific as Joe, the stern but helpful rehab host who wants to show Ruben how to navigate his new path, but won’t put up with anything that threatens the community. Though she disappears from the story relatively early, Olivia Cooke is quite compelling as Louise, who obviously loves Ruben and the music they play.
Director Darius Marder, who co-wrote the script, uses some innovative sound design to give us a sense of what’s happening — and not — inside Ruben’s head, while not letting any tangential storylines get in the way of his protagonist’s journey.
“Sound Of Metal” is not merely a narrative about Ruben’s experiences, but also a revealing glance at the process by which deaf people engage with and enliven each other. While never explicitly stated, it also serves as a reminder that pounding your ears with loud music (or other sounds) on a regular basis can cause severe damage and potential hearing loss.
I give “Sound Of Metal” a 9 out of 10.
It is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.