The first truly great film of 2021, Sound of Metal doesn’t just show you the intense journey of a young man losing his hearing, but attempts to let the viewer experience it along with him. In a star-making but meditative turn, Riz Ahmed is Ruben Stone, a recovering addict who plays drums in an underground screamo-metal duo with his girlfriend, Olivia Cooke’s troubled, self-harming Lou. The film begins at one of their shows, a brutal, sizzling exorcism of noise on a bleak, monochromatic stage, Lou screaming and thrashing at her guitar as Ruben thuds away instinctively. As every sound and lyric appears at the bottom of the screen as a subtitle, it’s instantly clear that this is already a very different kind of movie.
When we cut to the winnebago that Ruben and Lou live and work in the next day, the couple blissful yet still somehow awkward in their love, the subtitles continue. When they load in for another show that night, with a cameo from Brooklyn punk band Surfbort as their support act, we start to hear what Ruben hears; every high-pitched whistle, every tonal shift, the mumbled, lost words of others, a heavy swimming sound and the stark echo of nothing. Ruben heads to the doctor and his worst fears are confirmed – he is losing his hearing and soon he won’t be able to hear anything at all.
With the added pressure of a possible drugs relapse, a panicked Lou calls Ruben’s sponsor and soon the pair find themselves cancelling gigs and driving through scenic swathes of middle America to a rural retreat for deaf addicts. A fragile, frustrated Ruben remains in denial, desperate for a cure and expensive cochlear implants rather than learning how to live with his deafness. Yet with the help of the centre’s leader, a revelatory Paul Raci as the kind Joe – a Vietnam veteran and former alcoholic who lost his hearing during the war – and Lauren Ridloff as patient Diane, who teaches Ruben American Sign Language (ASL), his frantic reckoning with his new life seems to become more still. He makes friends and slowly starts to be comfortable with his deafness, as Joe shows him it isn’t something he needs to cure.
Part of Sound of Metal’s power comes from the film’s flawless casting. Unlike Sia’s disastrous Music, which placed a neurotypical actress in the role of a character with non-verbal autism, Sound of Metal’s director Darius Marder was committed to finding actors with experience of deafness. As the hearing son of deaf parents, Raci was already fluent in ASL, and Ridloff – who we’ll next see as a deaf superhero in the Chloe Zhao-directed Eternals – has been deaf since birth. Meanwhile, Ahmed fully immersed himself in a trio of new worlds to flesh out his character; he spent months learning ASL as well as the drums and also attended many NA and AA sessions to learn about addiction. The result is a profound and educational film, a poised portrayal of a man who thinks he’s lost everything, but through the power of community comes to find a new way of living.
- Director: Darius Marder
- Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
- Release date: April 11 (Amazon Prime Video), May 17 (in UK cinemas)