Like many other things in this world, movies tend not to be made for deaf people. Sure, one can always turn on the subtitles at home, but that’s not an option in a theater unless you’re fortunate enough to have a cineplex near you holding a special closed-captioned screening. Sound of Metal is a film specially made for people who can’t hear, because it tells the story of a musician going deaf. If you see it at the Grand Berry Theater, you’ll see closed captioning on everything, even the scenes in which a hearing person can clearly make out the dialogue. (They should have done that for Tenet.) That’s not the only way in which this film is remarkable, either.
Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, the heavily tattooed, bleached-blond drummer for a heavy metal duo called Blackgammon, along with Lou (Olivia Cooke), who is his lead singer, business manager, and girlfriend. One day while they’re touring the Midwest, during a conversation about sound check, all the talk and noises around Ruben drop out and are replaced by a high-pitched whine that does not go away for the rest of the day. An audiologist (Tom Kemp) informs Ruben that he has permanently lost more than 70 percent of the hearing in both ears. Ruben pins all his hopes on raising the $40,000 or so needed for a cochlear implant, but in the meantime, Lou drops him off at a school for the deaf with a program specially geared to recovering drug addicts like Ruben, helping them cope with life as a deaf person without relapsing.
When I reviewed A Quiet Place, I said it was the first film ever that you needed to hear in a theater’s speakers. This is the second one, as director/co-writer Darius Marder and his sound crew do all sorts of things with the mix to depict the fluctuations in Ruben’s hearing from total silence to dull drones to (spoiler alert) the distortion and interference in his head when he finally does get the cochlear implant, which turns out not to be a cure-all. During one scene when Ruben and other deaf students place their hands on a piano lid while someone plays, we go from hearing the music unfiltered to hearing the muffled notes that Ruben is receiving. The film works well enough as Ruben’s observation of the process of learning to be deaf, as he learns sign language and the meaning of Deaf culture. (Ask anyone who can’t hear, and they’ll tell you about the important distinction between “deaf” and “Deaf.”)
It works even better as a showcase for Ahmed. While actors of Arab descent are often stuck playing Muslim terrorists, this British rapper and comedian has broken out of the stereotype. Of course, he did play a bumbling terrorist to sidesplitting effect in Four Lions, but since then he has distinguished himself as the jittery pilot in Rogue One, the evil industrialist in Venom, the icy MI6 agent in Closed Circuit, and the bookish inventor in The Sisters Brothers. He outstrips even those performances here as Ruben tries to hold on to Lou and his musical career, exuding naked desperation as he begs her not to leave him at the school. His compatriot Cooke is impressive herself here — you’d never guess from her performances in Thoroughbreds and Ready Player One that she’d make a convincing heavy metal singer. Paul Raci (an actor whose parents are both deaf) also contributes a bracing turn as the program counselor. Even so, it’s Ahmed who runs the show, especially in a deeply moving climactic scene when Ruben reunites with Lou in Paris and they realize that Blackgammon and their relationship are over, and that both have saved their lives. Look at what Middle Eastern actors can do when they’re given the chance to play a range of roles.
A few years ago, I lost 10 percent of the hearing in one ear from an infection. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to impact my ability to listen to films or music, and I am the furthest thing from a heavy-metal drummer, and yet I could relate to so much of Ruben’s experience. He’s conscientious about his health because he’s often shirtless on stage and needs to look good. I’ve spent most of my adult life covering my ears at films when I anticipate explosions, gunshots, or other loud noises. Our precautions didn’t stop this from happening to either of us. His initial denial giving way to his troubled acceptance felt quite familiar to me. Sound of Metal ends with Ruben sitting on a park bench in Paris, taking off the receivers for his implants, and tuning out the world. As he finds peace of mind again, it’s hard not to feel for him.
Sound of Metal
Starring Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke. Directed by Darius Marder. Written by Darius and Abraham Marder. Rated R.