The film “Sound of Metal” starts with the uncomfortably loud noises of guitar feedback and ends two hours later with absolute silence. The trip through those extremes is a worthy one, if sometimes exasperating.
British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed absolutely shines as Ruben Stone, an American punk-metal drummer whose life is upended when he abruptly loses his hearing while on tour.
“Eliminate all exposure to loud noises,” a doctor advises Ruben. That’s not so easy. He’s a punk-metal drummer, after all. Loud noises is what he does.
The diagnosis threatens Stone’s livelihood but also his four-year streak at sobriety. His girlfriend and bandmate (a superb Olivia Cooke) convinces him to drive their Airstream across the country to a rehab facility that specializes in deaf addicts. There he must leave her and learn how to be deaf. And that’s where most films would usually end.
But that’s not what director and co-writer Darius Marder is after in his feature directorial debut. Yes, there’s a discussion of cochlear implants and how some in the deaf community see them as a betrayal, but deafness isn’t what “Sound of Metal” is about. It’s about belonging.
Marder, who wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham Marder, takes far too long to get to his points in a sluggish middle but has crafted a quite lyrical tale of a man trying to find his way when everything he knows is taken away.
Our hero’s backstory isn’t revealed until the 100-minute mark and there are too few clues to what’s churning in his interior life. But Ahmed is a revelation, another notch for a rising star. Watching his character take in and process information is riveting. Listening to him lost in silence and despairing with his big, expressive eyes is devastating.
“Sound of Metal” is also the first film you’ll see where you’ll want to instantly find out who oversaw the sound design. That would be Nicolas Becker. His team jumps in and out of the world of hearing, creating scrapes, choppy distortions and muffles in the twilight between those worlds that feel just out of reach. The film has been subtitled so it can be experienced by both the hearing and deaf communities.
At the rehab facility, our drummer goes through the difficult process of rebuilding his life. Without a language in the deaf world, he is doubly lost. He learns American Sign Language with deaf elementary school kids and becomes a sort of big brother to them.
He also becomes a helpful part of the adult recovery group, drawing tattoos and following the demands of the facility owner (a terrific Paul Raci) to sit every day with a pen and paper and write his feelings out.
Ruben seems to have found his way. “You’ve become very important to a lot of people around here,” the rehab head tells him. But Ruben is really an undercover agent — he hasn’t given up on the world of the hearing.
The film has another, unexpected chapter, one set in Paris and, to be honest, it’s not seamlessly attached. Reunited with his girlfriend, Ruben now has to decide where he really fits. And if he can just enjoy the silence.
“Sound of Metal,” an Amazon Studios release, is rated R for “language throughout and brief nude images.” Running time: 130 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.