Robbed of a full theatrical release, like hundreds of films this year, “Sound of Metal” premieres Friday on Amazon Prime. Amazon bought distribution rights to this bracing, beautifully acted drama more than a year ago, after co-writer and director Darius Marder’s narrative feature debuted as part of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. That feels like another epoch entirely — another time, another world.
And that’s right where the story’s main character finds himself. The early scenes in “Sound of Metal,” co-written by the director’s brother, Abraham Marder, depict the touring musician’s life, as lived by punk-metal drummer Ruben and his girlfriend, singer and bandmate, Lou. For several years they’ve lived out of their Airstream RV; both have been sober and drug-free for a while, and the gigs have been steady.
Mid-set one night, on stage, Ruben suffers a sudden, severe hearing loss. An audiologist runs some tests; he’s down to about one-fourth of his hearing in both ears. “Eliminate all exposure to loud noises,” the doctor says. Ruben, a tangle of compressed energy, rage and tenderness in Riz Ahmed’s galvanizing portrayal, denies what’s happening. He is staring at change so enormous he can barely comprehend it.
“Sound of Metal” rests on the shoulders of Ahmed, and on Olivia Cooke’s empathetic, many-sided Lou. The story rolls in two or three key auxiliary characters guiding Ruben along his chosen path after the diagnosis. With Lou back on the road, and with his sobriety at risk, Ruben checks into a sober house for the deaf run by a wise, world-weary soul played by Paul Raci, in one of the truest, shrewdest supporting performances of 2020.
Ruben adapts to these spartan new surroundings and his new, adoptive community. But his goal remains to get enough money to pay for cochlear implants and return, in one form or another, to his previous life and the relationship he knew. The uneasy clash between deaf ideologies, laid out a bit schematically in “Sound of Metal,” pits those who regard deafness as a setback to overcome or medically improve, and those — like Raci’s spiritual and group leader, Joe — who embrace it as a difference, not a deficit.
The movies were born to depict punishing lines of work, and in the opening seconds of “Sound of Metal” that’s exactly what we hear: Ruben, at his drum set, pounding away while the decibels screech. He’s like Mickey Rourke in the ring in “The Wrestler,” risking his livelihood by continuing to do what he does best. Visually, director Marder treats Ruben in much the same way, following from behind as he strides into a new scene, a new situation, an unexpected crossroads. The sound design is extraordinary, putting the viewer/listener in the shoes of Ruben much of the time, as screams turn to silence, and buzzy, chattering crowds turn to muffled, underwater sonic confusion and mystery.
Director Marder co-wrote the very fine, unpredictably structured drama “The Place Beyond the Pines,” co-written and director by Derek Cianfrance, who receives story credit on “Sound of Metal.” Ruben and Lou’s story takes a jump in the final third to Paris, where we meet Lou’s mixed blessing of a father (Mathieu Almaric). I’m not sure that part comes together, though the ending certainly does in a hushed and moving coda.
Mainly it’s Ahmed’s show. The British Pakistani performer became known as a rapper under the name Riz MC, and his live-wire intensity has been an asset to all sorts of movies since, including the blistering 9/11 satire “Four Lions,” the eerie media ethics nightmare “Nightcrawler” and the “Star Wars” standalone “Rogue One.” In “Sound of Metal” the scenes between Ahmed and Raci, particularly, are wonderful. And simple: Sitting around a table, quietly communicating some difficult truths, their dialogue is something new and strange to Ruben, who has lived his young addict’s life at a certain velocity.
The movie’s a little sketchy and underwritten, and it feels sometimes as if scenes have been pared away or cut altogether to concentrate on Ahmed. But Ahmed really is terrific. Director Marder has a knack for both observing and igniting human behavior, through character. And supervising sound editor Nicolas Baker’s work astounds, period.
‘SOUND OF METAL’
3 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout and brief nude images)
Running time: 2 hours
Premiere: Now in limited theatrical release; Friday on Amazon Prime.
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