Going deaf and fighting it

The idea of Sound of Metal is that a young man, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) encounters a sudden serious disability, but doesn't accept it, and maybe he should have. The disability is deafness. Exactly how it could come upon him by surprise is hard to say, but why it would come isn't a mystery, because he is a drummer in a two-person noise metal band, a terrible band that makes very loud noise. His partner in crime, Lou (Olivia Cooke), who is also his girlfriend and travels around with him in a big camper vehicle, screams and plays electric guitar - very loud. The may both be acting out their traumas. It turns out you can simulate deafness pretty well in a movie. You can tweak the sound, or dim it way down, and voila! Deafness. But while Riz Ahmed is appealing and somewhat convincing as the young deaf man, there is something not quite right with this film. When it's not focused on a man resisting inevitable change, it's lecturing us.

Ruben is a recovering heroin addict, and when he finds out he's suddenly very deaf, Lou arranged for him to go to a center for the deaf apparently run by a recovering alcoholic, Joe (Paul Raci, an actor who grew up with deaf parents and knows American sign language). Ruben is a hit with the kids, and seems to pick up deaf language quickly (we don't get many details - he learns the alphabet and he's good to go). But he sells his trailer and all that's in it and gets the surgery he hears about - cochlear implants. It's a desperate measure, expensive and not covered by insurance and Joe has told him to "learn how to be deaf," but he does it. The movie simulates this too - the crude, faintly recognizable sound of voices that one might gradually learn to work with. In a way this film's sound design is a semi-blank slate for the viewer to fill in. The whole picture is sort of that way.

We know this expensive surgery for a guy with no dough was probably a pretty dumb thing to do. One of the first things Ruben was warned was to do all he can to preserve the little bit of hearing he still has left, but he seems bent on going back to being a noise band drummer. Ruben's decision is not well received by Joe. He has not gotten with the program. And so Joe expels him. Ruben flies away, somehow, to France and finds Lou, whose father turns out to be Matthieu Amalric, playing Richard Berger, a French singer-songwriter. It's not clear exactly how much time has passed but the movie is in its last fifteen minutes and nothing has been resolved and Ruben has learned nothing. (The resolution comes in the last couple of minutes, but that's a little bit late.)

Riz Ahmed has such natural actor and engaging presence he makes us sympathize with Ruben even though he seems stubborn and rather dumb, and feel everything will turn out alright. But when we hear the song Lou and her father sing at a party the way it would sound to Ruben with cochlear implants, we feel this isn't going anywhere. First time director Darius Marder, who worked with Derek Cianfrance (a story collaborator here) on the screenplay for Cianfrance's 2012 The Place Beyond the Pines, has made an original, experimental film about a disability. The sound design effects used to convey what deafness is like are interesting. But this is a picture that promises a bit more than it performs. I was glad at least it wasn't Whiplash. Ahmed will be up for awards; certainly the sound designer Nicolas Becker should be too.

Sound of Metal, 120 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2019 and played at a dozen international festivals including Zurich (where it won the best film award), Rotterdam, Deauville, the Hamptons, AFI and Mill Valley. It had limited release in the US in Nov. 2020 and internet release (Amazon) Dec. 4, 2020. Metascore 81%.