“Sound of Metal” is a film with a potent, searing hook. It stars Riz Ahmed, who is such a sensational actor (just watch him in “Jason Bourne” or “Nightcrawler” or “The Sisters Brothers”), as Ruben, a punk-metal drummer, heavy on the tattoos and peroxide, who has been thrashing away as part of a caterwauling noise band for so long that he’s losing his hearing. The prospect of slipping into a disability like this one sounds devastating, and in this case there’s an added emotional factor: Ruben did it to himself. I don’t mean to sound like I’m playing blame-the-victim when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll musicians and hearing loss, but since what’s happening to Ruben is happening as a result of choices he made (art choices, lifestyle choices, bleakly nihilistic I just don’t give a f—k choices), the drama of his condition amounts to — or should — some sort of reckoning.
The opening scene, with the camera fixed up close on the bare-chested Ruben during a club concert, as the guitar not-so-gently screeches, is more than a touch ominous. A little later, when he’s standing near the merch table and his hearing starts to give out, you may feel like you’re in the early stages of a real-life horror movie.
“Sound of Metal” is a tough sit, all right, though not for the reason I expected: that we would watch — and listen to — Ruben lose his hearing with empathized agony, as if it were happening to us. There’s a little of that. The director, Darius Marder, does innovative things with sound design, creating scrapes and muffles that feel just out of reach, and he has subtitled the entire film so it can be experienced in a theater by both the hearing and deaf communities. All effective, and all good.
But Marder, making his first feature film as a director (his main credit, thus far, has been as the screenwriter of “The Place Beyond the Pines”), is too preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of sound design and not enough with what he should be doing: establishing who Ruben is as a human being — how he got to this place, and what his reaction to his condition is. “Sound of Metal” is two hours and 10 minutes long, and it moves at a snail’s pace, not because “nothing happens,” but because Marder hasn’t filled in the dramatic interior of what does happen. He has made a movie about deafness that’s at once experiential and too muffled to hear.
Ahmed plays Ruben as a sweet but blunted outsider who confronts his condition the same way he does everything else: with poe-faced blankness. For a short while, he slips in and out of being able to hear things. But starting fairly early on in the movie he’s effectively deaf, and I think Marder blew an opportunity here: If he’d shown us Ruben losing his hearing over time, not only would that have been more riveting in its anxiety, but we could have learned more about him — what he values, how he experiences the loss. Why didn’t he seek out medical treatment before? Hearing in musicians doesn’t tend to disappear overnight. Did Ruben just not care? Was he in denial? Watching a film like “Sound of Metal,” the audience shouldn’t be preoccupied with questions that the filmmaker himself never bothers to pose.
Ruben’s girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), is his partner in the band, named Blackgammon (she’s the one making the guitar racket), and they enjoy a low-rent gypsy punk existence, driving from gig to gig in their beat-up silver RV. Ruben is a recovering junkie, four years clean, and he and Lou are “progressive” vegetarian metalheads who wear their aggression on the outside in concert, so they won’t have to act it out on each other.
Once Lou understands what’s happening to Ruben (she seems more upset about it than he does), she takes him to a small deaf commune in the country overseen by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing during the war and runs the place like a sternly omniscient 12-step Buddhist counselor. One look at Ruben, and Joe knows just what Ruben’s problem is: He hasn’t accepted his deafness, hasn’t embraced it as a higher power. Ruben talks about wanting to get cochlear implants, which are expensive and imperfect, and Joe’s view, which is also the film’s, is that the deaf community — or, at least, Joe’s deaf community — regards such fixes as a betrayal of who they are.
But this may strike you as awfully proscriptive. If Joe is mounting an argument against intolerance (of the deaf), and against prejudicial thinking (of viewing the deaf as people who are in need of “fixing”), then why shouldn’t he be more tolerant of what Ruben wants to do? “Sound of Metal,” beneath its meandering soft surface, is a doctrinaire drama. It’s all about the woke way to suffer catastrophic hearing loss.
Ruben ultimately does get his implants, and it’s here that Marder’s innovative use of sound magnifies the drama of what we’re watching. We hear what Ruben hears, and it’s more than nothing, but it’s echoey, metallic, woefully flawed. What should he do? If the drama of who he is were more fully fleshed out, that question might wrench our souls. As it stands, “Sound of Metal” has been constructed so that Ruben, to find the true path, has to decide to become a different person than he was. The decision, it’s suggested, might still the addict’s frenzy that still rules him. The funny thing is, his hearing — or lack of it — winds up defining him. You could say that makes “Sound of Metal” enlightened, or you could say that makes it a film that talks at us more than it hears.