We open on Black Gammon, a heavy metal duo, as they deliver a wall-of-sound to an appreciative, raucous crowd. Another day in the life of Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) as they tour the country, promoting their music and nurturing an ever-growing fanbase. But the life of semi-pro, touring musicians isn’t all bright lights and stacks of cash. Nothing so glamourous. As we soon see through the lens of their RV – come recording studio – come bedroom. At first a sorry sight as it sits in an empty carpark where the pair have spent the night, but throughout the unfolding of Ruben’s morning routine, we see there is more contentment here than there seemed at first glance. An intense workout followed by the meticulous cleaning of his mixing desk, topped off with the greenest of smoothies for breakfast. Finally, a touching moment as he gently nudges Lou awake, the scars on her forearm conveying more about their bond than a hundred words of dialogue. However much their lives may lack glamour, they are seemingly not wanting for anything more than what they already have – their music, their RV and each other. But as the couple set up the merch stand ahead of their next gig, the sound suddenly dulls and the camera holds on Ruben… all of that is about to change.
Director and co-writer Darius Marder centres an electric Ahmed in Sound of Metal and entrusts him with the vast majority of the heavy lifting performance wise. It is very much Ruben’s story, exemplified through the vast majority of screen-time dedicated to his journey and Ahmed puts in what could be the turn of a lifetime. At first, Ruben is a man both troubled and joyful, haunted by addiction yet sober and stable, but when his hearing takes a downturn, his world is thrown into turmoil and he is forced to confront that which he fears the most, his own mind. The isolating nature of his deafness is a key theme in the film and Ruben is a man who has survived until now by keeping himself distracted and focussed, so dealing with this remoteness is a challenge that will test his very soul. Ahmed walks an emotional tightrope through the film, balancing frustration with acceptance, fear with hope and he embodies each of these shades expertly, never over-acting or veering into melodrama, not to mention having to learn how to sign and drum, both to which he brings authenticity. The bulk of his story takes place in a secular community, which houses and educates the deaf, owned and led by Paul Raci’s Joe who also delivers a stellar performance as Ruben’s harsh but honest mentor. The supporting cast here are all deaf actors, each given character beats and screen-time and their presence brings a legitimacy to the film that would’ve been lacking had they used a non-deaf cast.
The second act is far and away the strongest and hosts the most powerful material. Ruben’s volatile mental state, Joe’s composed wisdom, moments of levity and warmth with the children – all important ingredients in the emotional cocktail that makes up the central hour of the film, Ruben’s stresses surging and drawing back in a strangely comforting rhythm. The third act has some affecting scenes with Lou and Ruben, together and apart, but on the whole for me it’s the weakest section. An appointment with Ruben’s audiologist strains credulity and I felt the plot a little meandering. Perhaps the film could’ve benefited from shaving a few minutes off the run-time here. The final shot of the film however, is nothing short of profound.
It is an understated film in terms of direction. The choice deployment of a few creative flourishes in the sound design is always effective when playing with sensory material but for the most part, the film takes simple and elegant approach. Long holds on character close-ups are frequently employed, allowing the emotion to permeate out through facial expressions in a film in which the use of dialogue is inherently limited by the subject matter. Both Raci and Ahmed dominate this world of show-not-tell acting, so Marder never has to over-explain or spoon feed with his script. Similarly, throughout the film more generally, much of our understanding of the characters comes through their actions not their words and it’s all the better for it. It allows Marder to have extended sequences with little to no sound and invite the audience into Ruben’s audio-suppressed world, giving us a multi-sensory experience.
Ruling – Sound of Metal is a unique and poignant piece that explores its themes in engaging ways that offer up optimism in the face of seemingly unconquerable odds. It deviates from expected tropes and second act conflicts, instead it gives us an authentic portrayal of deafness, layered delicately with pathos and hope through masterful performances and expert direction.