There are many things Ruben (Riz Ahmed) doesn’t want to hear in “Sound of Metal,” but one diagnosis for the recent and sudden auditory loss is particularly painful, sitting with Joe (Paul Raci), the kindly proprietor of a retreat for the deaf community who tells him that the hardest part of living with the disability won’t have to do with his ears, but his mind. Ruben already knows this, having clawed his way back once before from the brink as Joe susses out he was a former drug addict and has since adopted a clean lifestyle that involves a morning routine of a smoothie comprised of unspeakable ingredients and yoga to bring tranquility. To radically rework his life again is too much to ask when his livelihood depends on playing the drums to accompany his girlfriend Lou in their noise band and without it, his sobriety could come back into question.
Mental blockades have a way of manifesting into the physical in the films of writer/director Darius Marder, a filmmaker who has demonstrated a clear interest in characters chasing something elusive in what’s been a curiously sporadic career thus far with his 2008 nonfiction debut “Loot” about a treasure hunter believing he’s on the verge of a big score and co-writing “The Place Beyond the Pines” with director Derek Cianfrance a multigenerational tale of sons being gripped by revenge for the sins of their fathers. In “Sound of Metal,” Marder needs only to go inside Ruben’s head to find a compelling conflict in the immediate aftermath of first being struck with a terrible case of tinnitus followed by the rapid deterioration of what hearing he has left. A tour with Lou is on deck, but she’s far less eager to proceed than he is after his diagnosis and she’s not even privy to what audiences are, with an evocative sound mix that channels what Ruben is capable of hearing and what he isn’t.
Although it is quite specific as an immersive experience, notably providing closed captioning to make it accessible to all and wading into the ongoing debate over the efficacy of coclear implants, “Sound of Metal” resonates even more when Ruben’s loss of one of his senses becomes the start of a search for inner peace with Ahmed giving a staggering performance in which he can look at the world with great anger for taking away something so central to him or looking at it anew with wide-eyed wonder when he’s forced to view it differently. Cooke is all but unrecognizable at first as Lou, sporting blond eyebrows under a mop of red hairs, but makes such an immediate impression as Ruben’s tortured partner, growing to understand that the best way to help her volatile boyfriend is to give him space, that her presence looms large when he spends much of his time at the retreat alone. Marder also does well to instill such trust in Raci, who gives the film much of its considerable gravitas as Joe, the war vet-turned-counselor who knows Ruben at this precarious moment better than he knows himself, though careful not to let on. For a film in which people come into one another’s lives at just the right time and struggle with deciding when’s an appropriate moment to leave to allow them to become their best selves, it is just one show of compassion among many in “Sound of Metal” that the characters in it will stay with you forever.
“Sound of Metal” will be distributed by Amazon Studios.