Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) may not have it all, but they have enough. Recovering addicts the both of them, they mix the personal and the professional as romantic partners and a two-person metal band, playing small gigs and living out of their surprisingly cozy van. The fact that they’ve found each other seems to have made a significant difference in their previously dangerous lives — they’re compatible in the most positive of ways. But life can be precarious, upturned when you least expect it: within the first thirty minutes of the film Ruben starts to lose his hearing and with it his sense of self. He thinks things can go back to normal if he can just get an implant; we know it’s probably not that easy.
Sound of Metal, to its immense credit, is a much trickier film to get a handle on than that premise might lead you to believe. First-time director Darius Marder is perhaps best known for his part in scripting Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (Cianfrance continues the collaborative partnership with a story credit on Metal), and there are similar ambitious thematic narratives on display here. The bulk of the runtime is devoted to Ruben’s time at a sort of community-based halfway house for deaf adults, a place where he can learn to live with what he would consider a disability, but those around him (and indeed, the film itself) see as just another identifying trait — a part of who they are, not an obstacle to overcome.
This is the element of Sound of Metal that most surprises and most exemplifies the deft touch Marder has. One might expect a film of this ilk to be overly cloying or — even worse — patronizing, but Marder treats the material matter-of-factly without losing an emotional core or undermining the difficulties Ruben and his compatriots face in re-integrating into a society that still in so many ways looks down with pity (or even contempt) on anyone who doesn’t meet the standard set of criteria. There’s a realism at play, helped by the casting of several actors from the deaf community, and you rarely find yourself questioning either authenticity or intent.
That being said, Metal is ultimately far from predictable, refusing to conform to the tidy structures that have too often defined stories of addiction or trauma in the past. But the film is elevated most of all by (along with the incredible sound design) the work of Riz Ahmed. An actor who is rarely anything less than engaging, Ahmed here is electrifying, laying Ruben’s past and inner self bare without the need for excessive exposition or melodramatic histrionics. Though there are moments where you may question the sensibility of some of the narrative decisions (as well as the length of the film, which at a full 2 hours starts to sag a bit), Ahmed never lets Ruben fall into caricature or unbelievability; it’s a star-making performance for an actor whose profile should already be much larger than it is, and that alone makes Sound of Metal worth seeking out — that it’s such a sure-handed debut in other respects is the icing on the cake.