Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. He and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in a two-person band and they just love to bang on shit and make noise. They travel the country in their Airstream; it’s not a glamorous life or a well-remunerated one (yet, there are talks of an album), but they’re happy. Which means the universe is hiding around the corner waiting to deliver a great big wallop.
One day, Ruben wakes up deaf. It has likely been a bit more progressive than this, but this movie doesn’t document it, it just dumps us into his sudden new reality, which clearly takes him by surprise. The verdict: his hearing’s not coming back. A cochlear implant may give him some approximation of hearing (and a bill for $80 grand regardless), but Ruben is deaf, and it’s permanent. As you might imagine, being a transient drummer in a largely unsuccessful band does not come with insurance. Desperate in his new deafness, Ruben is of course fixated on the miraculous-sounding implant, but the reality is that for now, he just has to learn to live with his new situation. He’s still in denial, and he’s depressed, and Lou worries that his sobriety is about to be compromised, but traditional meetings, and even his sponsor, won’t be much help if he can’t hear them. Which is how they wind up reaching out to Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a deaf community and is an addict himself. The community has everything Ruben needs right now: a safe space to learn to be deaf. The only problem is, it needs to be a fully immersive experience, cutting him off from the rest of the world, including Lou. Ruben hasn’t just lost his hearing. He’s lost his love, his home, his music. He is a wayward soul who doesn’t know how to begin to grieve, let alone cope.
Though Ruben isn’t exactly a demonstrative person, we sense how profoundly changed his life is; his reactions feel authentic if unhelpful, and we can’t honestly say we wouldn’t do the same ourselves. Ahmed’s commitment to the role is evident in every frame; he spent 6 months learning to drum, which his character can only do for about 6 minutes of film time. He also learned American Sign Language, a vital skill not only for his character, but for communicating with his deaf colleagues on set. In his directorial debut, Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham, knew the value of seeking out deaf actors for deaf parts.
Ruben is reimagining his entire identity, which can obviously be a scary process. Ahmed allows himself to be vulnerable on screen as he tries to absorb his new realities. Acceptance is key, but its path has such rough terrain. Told from a hearing perspective, or at least a former one, Sound of Metal is an interesting bridge into the deaf community. But it’s also at its just one man’s struggle with self-acceptance. He needs to let go of his past to reimagine his future, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done.
Sound of Metal is in select theatres now and will be available digitally and on demand December 4th.