Propelled by a distinctive style and a potent lead performance, Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” builds a singular tension between silence and noise.
For Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer in a punk-metal band, the decibel level of his music seems a fine substitute for his former heroin habit. When, without warning, his hearing drastically diminishes, Ruben panics; to preserve his sobriety and please his girlfriend and bandmate (Olivia Cooke), he enrolls in a remote commune for recovering deaf addicts run by Joe (Paul Raci), a serene Vietnam veteran. An atheist in a “Let go, and let God” world, Ruben struggles to settle, and Ahmed (who learned American Sign Language for the role) plays him with a tweaking urgency that’s poignantly credible — he’s a study in distress.
Without jumping too strenuously into the ideological divide between those who view deafness as an identity and those who deem it a correctable problem, “Sound of Metal” nevertheless suggests that Ruben’s salvation lies only in acceptance of his condition. And when, desperate to reclaim his former life and love, Ruben sets his sights on expensive cochlear implants, the film feels too eager to penalize him for his choice.
“You don’t need to fix anything here,” Joe tells Ruben at one point when he tries to mend the roof, the allusion all too clear.
Though underwritten and dramatically muted, this unusual movie diverts with an extraordinarily intricate sound design that allows us to borrow Ruben’s ears. From the sonic assault of his music to the hisses and crackles of his newly implanted devices — like an imperfectly tuned radio station — what Ruben hears seems as indistinct as his future.
Sound of Metal
Rated R for tasteful cuddling and a few bad words. Running time: 2 hours. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.