Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
The loud, cranking sounds that Ruben and Lou pump out on the stage mirrors their crackling, passionate romance. It’s a musical connection that keeps them locked together and always on the road to their next gig.
But when Ruben begins to lose his hearing, everything dramatically changes. Their heavy-metal life on tour may end, and along with it, their relationship suffers.
Director and co-writer Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” is a sensitive and wonderful film. While his subject is a rocker driven by the percussive, melodic noise emanating from his drum set, it’s the lack of sound altogether that this film is concerned with. We’re taken on Ruben’s mostly soundless journey.
And when his hearing finally goes away entirely, Ruben is forced to seek help from an organization run by the well-worn Joe (Paul Raci). Joe’s inviting group home is dedicated to teaching people to live with and embrace their perceived disability. But Ruben can’t imagine life without sound, and he’s intent on getting an implant to make things right again. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Lou (“Ready Player One’s” Olivia Cooke), may have moved on.
Ruben is played by Riz Ahmed, an actor we’ve seen in supporting roles a great deal in the last decade. The handsome actor is good in everything (see his work in HBO’s “The Night Of,” and in the little-seen, wonderful 2018 film “The Sisters Brothers”). “Sound of Metal” will help build his star as a leading man, and awards notice is warranted.
Marder takes a light directing touch, allowing us to spend precious time with Ruben, Joe and the others who learn sign language and life skills. It’s informative and genuinely moving. Also, part of Joe and Ruben’s struggles involve drug and alcohol abuse, but the script avoids cliché. This screenplay is written by Marder, Abraham Marder and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (see “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”).
There’s a casual, easy nature to the storytelling. Serious, life-altering events are taking place, but Ruben has to deal with them logically and practically. He reunites with Lou, who is living with her father (played by Mathieu Amalric). A sequence with Ruben and Lou’s father discussing life over a plate of eggs in his kitchen is fresh and beguiling.
Of course, hanging over the narrative is the destructive shadow of addiction. But Ruden’s deafness, and possible loss of Lou, sharpen his resolve. “Sound of Metal” isn’t a movie about wallowing in self-pity and self-destructive behavior. It’s a mature depiction of a tender soul forced to find a way forward.
Note that the sound design here is critical. Marder and his talented sound production and post-production team take us inside Ruben’s fading world. We hear things as he hears them and how he ultimately does not. This demanding, creative approach elevates a little film and helps the viewer understand the protagonist’s plight in a palpable, intimate way.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com