At their hearts, movies are about trying to make audiences relate to their characters. You don’t have to have lived a life like them, but if you feel any kind of emotion about what a character is experiencing, then the movie will have done its job. And then there are those special few which go beyond relating, and actually put the audience in the shoes of a character, turning something special into transformative.
That is the rare air that Sound of Metal now occupies. It centers on Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a two-person heavy metal band with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). The film starts off in the middle of one of their concerts, and it’s immediately clear that something is wrong with Ruben, as the audio is muffled and words unintelligible.
It’s not long before he discovers the truth: His hearing is deteriorating rapidly. Initially devastated, Ruben is soon convinced to stay with a group of Deaf people who help people like him transition into a life without hearing. But Ruben maintains a stubbornness that’s hard to crack, keeping hope alive that something like cochlear implants could help him recover the life he had.
Written and directed by Darius Marder, with an assist from co-writer Abraham Marder, the film is a major achievement for a number of reasons. The sound design, which fades out, distorts, or disappears completely depending on Ruben’s state at different points in the film, is impeccable, giving true insight into what Ruben is going through.
Additionally, the filmmakers put some real thought into not only portraying the world of Deaf people, but appealing to Deaf viewers as well. Subtitles and audio descriptions automatically appear on the screen, something Deaf viewers normally have to enable on home screens. They also put the audience in Ruben’s shoes in his initial days in the community, making no attempt to interpret sign language, a rare chance for those who can speak sign language to have a leg up on those who can’t.
Everything technical the filmmakers employ enhances the story immeasurably. Ruben’s story, and Lou’s by extension, is filled with ups and downs, but each turn the plot takes feels earned instead of manipulated. The time Ruben spends with the group of Deaf people feels incredibly naturalistic, with seemingly real people aided by great acting turns from Deaf actors Paul Raci and Lauren Ridloff.
In addition to being a great story, the film does much to try to destigmatize deafness. The story gently but firmly pushes the belief that being deaf is not a disability, and grappling with that idea is the struggle with which Ruben must contend for most of the film. In that way, he stands as a proxy for any viewer who might fear going through his experience or something like it.
Ahmed is simply astounding in his role. He’s impressed before in a starring role in the HBO miniseries The Night Of and a supporting turn in Nightcrawler, but this might just be his best work to date. The different shades of emotion that go over his face throughout the film are utterly convincing, making the audience empathize with him from minute one. Cooke has a somewhat thankless role, but she’s given some scenes in the final act that are equal to anything Ahmed does.
Sound of Metal is essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a fan of movies. With great acting, stellar technical aspects, and a message that’s rarely illuminated in film, it’s one of the best movies of the year.
Sound of Metal will play at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra, ShowBiz Cinemas Kingwood 14, Landmark River Oaks Theatre, The Grand Conroe, and Studio Movie Grill Pearland starting on November 20. It will debut on Amazon Prime Video on December 4.