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Movie review: In ‘Sound of Metal’ a rock musician must deal with career-related deafness

Ed Symkus
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Joe (Paul Raci) tries to give advice to Ruben (Riz Ahmed).

One’s ears take a lot of abuse if one is a drummer in a metal-punk band, even if that band is just a duo, especially if the drummer is hitting as hard as possible and the guitarist-singer has her amp turned up to 11, and is screaming her words even louder than the drummer is smacking his kit.

The drummer in “Sound of Metal” is Ruben (Riz Ahmed). His bandmate and lover is Lou (Olivia Cooke). They’ve been plugging away as Blackgammon - living in and driving from gig to gig in their Airstream RV - for four years. That’s the same period that they’ve been a couple, the start of which, it’s hinted, is when they, at least metaphorically, saved each other’s lives.

There were drugs in their pasts, but their acts have been cleaned up. Unfortunately, the relationship with music that was part of their recovery has now taken its toll on Ruben. When he’s onstage, he can’t make out the words Lou is singing; even the chopping and slashing at her guitar is a blur to him. When they’re back in the RV, hanging out and chatting, her words are muffled. As part of the film’s immersive, complicated, extremely effective sound design, director Darius Marder has viewers experiencing the same thing as Ruben: Some voices and sounds - the ones heard by him - are unintelligible. Marder considerately provides subtitles.

Ruben keeps Lou unaware of his circumstance for as long as possible, but the concern on his face is clear. An audiologist informs him that his hearing is deteriorating rapidly. Only 24% of it remains in his left ear, and 28% in his right, and loud noises are making it worse. “How do I get it back?” he asks the doctor, with trepidation. “Implants could help,” he’s told. “But your hearing is not coming back.” It’s here, in a bravura performance by Ahmed, that the expression on his face turns to confusion, and confusion turns to terror. It’s then that he tells Lou what’s going on. She’s alarmed, he’s in denial, but both agree something must be done, immediately.

The possible solution comes in the form of a journey, one that Ruben has to take without the support of Lou, one that involves becoming part of a deaf community, and a program run by a mellow, spiritual, deaf, lip-reading man named Joe (Paul Raci, another amazing performance) who can talk, but communicates with deaf people via sign language as well as some computer-related technical wizardry.

“If you want to be in my program, we’re looking for a solution to this (points to his forehead), not this (points to his ears),” he says to Ruben who hasn’t yet accepted his affliction, and can’t stop thinking about the implants that he believes will “cure” him.

There’s no way to tell how much time passes in “Sound of Metal,” but it becomes the story of Ruben’s transformation from someone whose face and body language say, “What have I gotten myself into?” to someone who takes heed of Joe’s advice: “Learn to be deaf.” Ruben masters sign, is able to partake in conversations with others and starts to fit in with this community.

But, unknown to Joe, he’s also sneaking time on a computer, following Lou’s ongoing career in the outside world. He’s also still thinking about implants. He can attempt to hide it all he wants but - again, accolades to Ahmed’s performance - he’s still in denial.

There’s a visit to a hospital, results that Ruben had not considered (Ahmed adds hopelessness to the map of emotions on his face and in his eyes), a trip to Paris, where Lou has been singing and living with her father (Mathieu Amalric), and a few variations of meetings with destiny.

It’s a film that’s both troubling and rewarding. It’s a small, intense and - despite some harsh and loud noises - quiet film that evolves into a contemplative study of the human condition.

“Sound of Metal” premieres on Amazon Prime on Dec. 4.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Sound of Metal”

Written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder; directed by Darius Marder

With Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric

Rated R