Often, perhaps especially as a critic, you walk into a movie knowing generally what to expect. When it came to editor-turned-helmer Darius Marder’s directorial debut, Sound of Metal, I thought I knew. I’d heard the good buzz out of the festival circuit that touted this drama about a heavy metal drummer losing his hearing. I’d heard that Riz Ahmed was riveting in the central role, and that the sound design is an enveloping stunner. All this is true, yet I wasn’t ready for Sound of Metal, a movie that threatened to pitch me into an anxiety attack for nearly the entirety of its runtime.
Written by Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, and Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), Sound of Metal begins in the intoxicating fervor of a rock show. Ruben Stone (Ahmed) is at his drum kit, hammering away while his girlfriend/front-woman Lou (Olivia Cooke) howls into a microphone and thrashes on her guitar. It’s a moment of cacophonic bliss, or it would be if it weren’t for the wonkiness of the audio. It’s muffled, in and out, and it’ll only get worse. We’re hearing what Ruben hears. The sound design sucks us into our hero’s head, experiencing the suffocating panic of a sudden loss of the sounds around you. Instinctively, I snap open my jaw in a yawn to pop my ears, but the sound doesn’t return. Unease creeps in as the first act kicks into gear.
The plot concerns a musician who goes deaf, but that is not what the film is about. Hearing loss is the inciting incident, not the protagonist’s problem. In a flurry of activity, Ruben gets diagnosed, learns about a surgical option, and wishes to race blindly into raising the money for such an expensive procedure so that he can get back to where he was before. He wants to live in an Airstream with his girlfriend, and trek across the nation playing rowdy gigs in shitty bars. But there’s no going back. His doctor explains this. Lou urges him to see it, as does Joe (Paul Raci), the kindly leader of a community of deaf addicts who work together in recovery. Four years clean, Ruben reluctantly agrees to join the group, but his eyes are often sliding to the exit.
Much of the film takes place in this rural retreat, where the sounds are those of crickets buzzing, enthusiastic banging on the dinner table as sign language flashes in flurries of conversation, and the laughter of children at an associated school for the deaf. Repeatedly, Ruben is thrown into scenarios where he feels isolated. The rock world he loved became alien as the sound slipped away. In the retreat, he sits miserably mute while those around him converse in ASL. In the final act, he’ll once more find himself in a land where he can’t keep up with the language bandied around him. But in between these scenes of delicately communicated alienation, Marder creates striking moments of potential respite.
When he first meets Joe, Ruben is warned that the retreat is not about fixing his ears. It’s about fixing his mindset. Sure, he’ll learn ASL, and thereby be welcomed into the conversation that goes on silently all around this idyllic space. However, the true challenge that Ruben has before him is learning to sit with himself. There’s no life or death drama here. Instead, Marder brews tension from the anxiety of the restless. Ruben has long found comfort in activity and noise. His body is endlessly in motion, be it stalking down the street seeking a solution, or busting out some push-ups while the coffee brews. So, when Joe challenges him to sit – just sit – in stillness and silence, it is hell.
This is a mindset I relate to so deeply that I could hear my heartbeat pounding savagely during this scene, which is just Ruben frustrated and frantic, refusing to sit and so smashing a donut to bits. This mindset of go go go is a menace that tells us stopping, stillness, silence is all death. The horror of deafness is not just the loss of music to Ruben, but also the inability to escape himself. Mindfulness, living in the moment, it’s something that can be such a struggle that many who turn to meditation can have panic attacks when they first try it. I’m one of them. Watching Ruben struggle with the seemingly simple task of just sitting still threw me back to that place of panic so forcefully that I began employing tools learned in cognitive behavioral therapy to calm myself down so that I could sit and finish watching this film.
I realize sinking into first person in a review is controversial, in no small part because it can become navel-gazing drivel. However, as I watched Sound of Metal, I could not pry apart my physical reactions from what was going on onscreen. Like Eighth Grade, this film captures an excruciating journey of self-discovery with such unblinking authenticity that it made my skin crawl. It made me want to run away, or perhaps throw on headphones and blast my favorites sounds until I could think of nothing but their lyrics. It’s incredible that in his first feature-length film Marder was able to submerge his audience so powerfully that my fight-or-flight kicked in. I was desperate to flee, because Sound of Metal hits so hard.
Of course, such submersion wouldn’t have been possible were it not for an impeccable cast. Cooke, who has been crudely misused as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in movies like Ready Player One and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, brings an earthy realness to this rock n’ roll romance. Mathieu Amalric pops up for a bracing dose of smugness and compassion. Raci is extraordinary, the kind of actor whose mug speaks of stories you share over a pub’s candlelight, in voices whispered, smirk on lips, tongue in cheek. When he feels joy, it radiates through the screen like the warmth of the sun. When he feels disappointment, his fallen cheeks shatter hearts. Then at the center is Riz Ahmed, giving the performance of a lifetime.
His lean body, plastered in dirt-bag tattoos, screams of a life lived hard and recklessly. Yet as he looks at Lou, the glisten in his eyes bellows volumes about the beautiful life they’ve built in his sobriety. Cruelly, that is threatened by the loss of sound. But Ruben is not one to cry; he is one to rage and rebel. Ahmed’s body becomes an electrified frenzy of tension. His gaze intense, yet lost. His face trembling nimbly, screaming out all the things he wants to say but couldn’t hear anyway. In Ruben’s journey, we see him thrown into the deep end again and again. We see him thrash. Marber’s immersive soundscape, thoughtfully laid out screenplay, and tautly paced direction makes us feel the violence in this mental volatility. Then, he and Ahmed give us moments of grace like gasps of air, until – essentially – Ruben learns how to breathe underwater.
All this makes for a film that is a surprisingly hard watch, but also essential viewing. After all, how often does a movie make your whole body feel invested, suffocated, and finally – cathartically – floating?
“Sound of Metal” debuts Friday on Amazon Prime Video.