Synopsis: A drummer experiences hearing loss.
What happens when a recovering addict is hit with life-changing adversity that would knock anyone off their feet? This is the question at the heart of Sound of Metal. Riz Ahmed (The Night Of) is Ruben Stone, a punk rock drummer who is a recovering addict.
Writer-director Darius Marder was fortunate to bring on Mr. Ahmed whose acting talent lifts even tepid material. (More on that later.) Riz is very intense in this flick. He has a maniac’s energy when he is drumming. But his best acting is in quiet moments when his face registers panic, hope, or disbelief without resorting to melodrama. And his big eyes are always very active, especially right before he smashes something in frustration or gets news he doesn’t want to accept.
Riz and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are on tour, breaking eardrums nightly with music from their punk duo, Black Gammon. She scream-sings and shreds her guitar while he exhaustively pummels the drums. But all is not well. For one thing, his hearing keeps going in and out, making it hard for him to do his job. For another, his tats really suck. Fortunately for him, he seems unaware of this.
Now where Riz comes from, the UK, he could see an audiologist and an otolaryngologist. Well, after a period of bitching about the NHS wait. But his character is American in the script (his accent is good), so he worries about what his insurance will cover. He is right to worry because unknown musicians are typically broke and have no health insurance.
But the movie requires him to see specialists because otherwise it would just keep going on with them playing gigs and Riz otherwise spending his time on their RV clicking his jaw and pulling on his ears to investigate his hearing decline. So he manages to get an assessment.
The sound design is excellent; weird pulsing noises, sound going in and out and hearing muffled as though one is underwater. Fortunately, the character’s experience isn’t overdone so that hearing audience members can keep track of what’s going on. (At festival showings, the subtitles were on.)
His diagnosis is complicated and no spoilers on whether or not he has hope to improve his hearing loss. Riz confides to his girlfriend that there are times that he can’t hear anything. She is really concerned for him, which she well should be because the specialists told him to not expose himself to any loud noises. Next scene is him banging the drums at that night’s show.
Early on in the movie he and his girlfriend check out a facility in the New England countryside that is for deaf persons who are also addicts. The movie conveniently has a church sponsor his stay. Riz doesn’t want to be away from Lou, but she convinces him to give it a try. We won’t forget that music is his life because his only shirts are black band t-shirts. And he occasionally drums on playground equipment.
The director of the facility is Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam War veteran who lost his hearing as a result of being nearby an explosion. Who knows what addiction counseling training he has had, but he seems to be quite the guru. Joe is calm and soft-spoken. He talks a lot about the importance of feeling “settled.” Riz is more concerned with the fact that residents can’t use their cell phones or computers. Joe says this is for the best and there doesn’t seem to be any other staff to weigh-in on Joe’s rules.
Riz looks stressed, but he tries his best to learn some sign language and fit in with the other residents. The place works like a commune with everyone sharing family-style dinners and assigned chores. One day Joe sees Riz making himself useful repairing the roof. Joe disapproves and tells Riz that he needs to sit in a room with paper and pen and write. Just write until he can be settled. Sometimes Riz gets frustrated with this regimen. One day he even smashes a delicious-looking donut to pieces.
Riz gets another assignment. There is a school for deaf children on campus and he is assigned as a classroom aide. The teacher is Diane (Lauren Ridloff) and she is quite sympathetic and dedicated. I’m sure the kids’ parents like her. But I don’t know that they would be cool with a recovering addict around their kids. I bet Joe didn’t even do a background check, it probably conflicts with his own personal guru doctrine.
Weeks go by and Riz bides his time until he can contact Lou and somehow drum again. Joe can sense that Riz may not be onboard with being part of the deaf community. Maybe he would have more of a sense of belonging if he grew out his hair Joe-style; a tattered ponytail.
While tracking Riz’ character’s progress –or lack thereof– be sure to focus on the actor’s awards potential performance. Besides creating a believable person, he taps into an award matrix of sorts. He can freak-out or tear up with the best of them, but he also drums convincingly and learned sign language for the role. So other contenders be apprised, unless you learned a musical instrument and another language, step aside.
Sound of Metal reminded me of another small film, Short Term 12, about a person who is recovering from trauma while working at a facility for at-risk teens. Brie Larson was the star. And like Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, the actor is more memorable than the material.
I did have a hopeful career change in mind for Riz’ drummer. During the course of the film we learn that he actually has a talent for designing and tattooing. But Joe doesn’t notice because he is too busy sadly gazing into his client’s eyes boring him with allegories when he could be engaging him with requests for badass tatts.
P.S. Sound of Metal deserves credit for highlighting the deaf community. Joe is played by Paul Raci who, while not deaf, was raised by deaf parents. Lauren Ridloff as the teacher Diane is deaf.
Persons who are deaf have challenges socially, educationally and economically. There are many books and articles available online on these issues. One of my favorite pieces is a chapter on deaf children who are raised by hearing parents in Andrew Solomon’s excellent book Far from the Tree.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Worth seeing for Riz Ahmed’s performance.
Humor Highlight: Guru Joe.