We hear the film before we see it. “Sound of Metal,” which starts its theatrical run today, opens with a drone of distorted guitar flooding our cochleae against a black screen, placing us in the deafening headspace of one Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), drummer of a fictional punk-metal duo. We will get used to this sort of subjectivity over the next two hours, as his ears become ours.
Eventually, we see Ruben, live onstage behind his drum kit, shirtless with a Richard Hell tattoo on his chest, almost davening in anticipation of the start of a concert, a nonbeliever treating his profession like a religious rite. Then comes the irrepressible torrent from his legs and drumsticks, the one-man rhythm section backing lead singer and girlfriend Lou’s (Olivia Cooke) searing vocals. It’s enough to make the average Enya listener want to worship at the altar of American hardcore, if only for just a moment.
A moment is pretty much all we get. We’ve barely come to appreciate the band’s intense rhythms—surviving on smoothies and adrenaline while touring Midwestern dives in their live-in Airstream RV—when a sudden disruption throws everything into tumult. With the immediacy of a radio powering down, Ruben’s hearing plummets in an instant to 20-some percent of its capacity, and dropping. Like our protagonist, we encounter a newly muffled world, straining to comprehend commonplace sounds. Ruben’s job, it seems, is rapidly destroying one of his senses.
Like last year’s aching masterpiece “The Rider,” about a rodeo performer whose head injury impedes him from participating in his livelihood, “Sound of Metal” is about the difficult transition from one paradigm to another—and the stages of grief that weigh down the journey. Complicating matters, Ruben is a recovering drug addict. Initially against his will, he is rehomed in a woodsy center for the deaf, run by the sagely Joe (Paul Raci), an alcoholic in recovery. It’s here that Ruben’s main task becomes, in Joe’s words, “learning to live as a deaf person”: picking up American Sign Language, transcending his bitterness and resentment, finding his usefulness in the community, appreciating stillness. (This is a film made with the hard-of-hearing population in mind; closed-caption subtitles are included in screenings, and cannot be turned off.) Ruben pipe-dreams, meanwhile, of a surgical procedure, priced at some $50,000, that will purportedly restore his hearing.
I can’t imagine a 2020 film with a more elaborate, precise and immersive sound design, one that weaves first- and third-person perspectives into an aural tapestry. Lacing the distortions of Ruben’s fractured hearing with the clarity of “real-world” audio creates a new kind of city symphony—one scored, perhaps, by John Cage. But if “Sound of Metal” has the tactile persuasiveness of a sweeping musical work, it also has the intellectual heft, unassuming humor and naturalistic grace of a Great American Novel. Considering this is only the first film, and only the second screenplay, from writer-director Darius Marder, it’s nothing short of a revelation.
Furthermore, the performances are uniformly perfect, with Cooke deftly balancing her character’s conflicting needs: to protect her boyfriend without enabling his worst impulses, to scratch her own musical itch while knowing Ruben’s is inaccessible. As for Ahmed, this work is his finest hour to date, not only for his actorly dedication—he learned ASL for the film, and spent six months learning the drums—but for the wrenching emotional gravitas with which he imbues every moment onscreen. It’s such a cliché, but we really do feel his pain.
Part of living in the historical moment in which we find ourselves is that so many of our entertainments, even if completed prior to the pandemic, seem to reflect it. I said as much about one of the year’s other great films, “She Dies Tomorrow.” And so my mind kept returning to the transcendent subtext of “Sound of Metal,” this dialectic between clinging to the vestiges of an old life and accepting the uncertainties of a new normal.
Sometimes, as torturous as it may seem, the tether to the past just needs to be severed. In spirit, it’s one of 2020’s most year-defining films, as well as one of its most zen, with a conclusion that is deceptively simple: Only by accepting the silence can we put an end to the noise.
“The Sound of Metal” opens today at the Tower Theater in Miami and Landmark at Merrick Park in Coral Gables. It opens on Amazon Prime Dec. 4.