From the blackness of a darkened stage, the spotlight is on the drummer, bare -chested, hands in air, ready to beat his tom-toms with the undulations of a driving piston. It is dark and quiet, but he is coiled to explode.
Thus begins Sound of Metal, a film now on Amazon Prime that dares to explore deafness with fury and anger and contradictions. Riz Ahmed, so good in the 2016 HBO limited series The Night Of ..., plays the hard-rock drummer at the heart of the film as a man enraged like he has been hit with a pair of weights after pounding his own weighted sticks for year . For the drummer has turned suddenly and permanently deaf, eardrums ruptured beyond repair.
The film is directed with honesty and empathy by Darius Marder, a film editor and writer, from a story by Derek Cianfrance. The pair had collaborated on other projects over the past decade, and Cianfranco had directed documentaries that profiled musicians such as Run-DMC.
Late in the 2020 film year, they have come from nowhere to portray the world of the deaf in ways that have been seldom seen in film outside of documentaries. This is Marder's first feature length film and one that is hard to miss.
Ahmed, who could be an Oscar contender, plays Ruben, a tattooed drummer who travels the road to rock gigs in his Gulfstream with his girl, lead singer Lou (Olivia Cooke). He is a vagabond, a signatory to the the rock 'n' roll lifestyle and an addict, both to drugs and to music.
Until life as he knows it ends. During a gig onstage, while the strobes light his anguished face and Lou spits metal lyrics like a primal scream, Ruben goes deaf. A high-pitched, continuous ring is his only sound. Ruben sets down his drums, walks to a back lot behind the venue and tries to talk himself out of this nightmare. I am deaf, he screams to Lou, who joins him beside a chain-link fence where the other side represents his new reality.
Marder's film takes unsuspecting turns from this tragic start. Told from Ruben's point of view, the viewer hears the hum and the whine in his ears. The experience is claustrophobic, as Ahmed paints Ruben as a man trapped in his own head, one that cannot clear out the trashy white noise. He enters a community for the deaf where he can hopefully rebuild his life among others facing a similar situation. But Ruben, with the word NO written across one bicep, has one foot out the door from the start, unwilling to accept what has become of himself virtually overnight.
Marder, the director, is interested in this struggle between self-pity and self-acceptance, between engulfing anger and still calm. This is no saccharine movie -- Ruben is not always likeable or deserving of admiration -- nor one concerned with rehabilitation from a disability.
The point of difference is that the film does not treat deafness as a disability. Those in the deaf community are portrayed as comfortable with this situation, satisfied that they see things differently and in a novel way than the hearing population. That Ruben cannot abide by this plays at the movie's heart.
The film also goes beyond surface expectations by casting those familiar with deafness in supporting roles. The community leader, Joe, is played by Paul Raci, whose parents are deaf, and the entire community is deaf, including the children. There are moments of small transcendence, as when Ruben plays a beat with his hands at the bottom of a playground slide, and a deaf teen responds by touching his fingers to the metal and pounding out his own sound.
Joe yearns for Ruben to find his own transcendence. He tells him to sit down in a spare room and write, for hours at a time, when he is not pacing or banging on the walls ferociously. It doesn't matter what he writes or doodles, Joe says; it is the act alone that will help him achieve calm.
But the movie is not a public service message for homes for the deaf. Ruben is too tied into his former, adrenalized life to be satisfied with stillness. He longs to have cochlear implants that will restore his hearing -- at least a version of it, missing the warmth of a human voice and replacing that with a more metallic sound (hence, the film's name). Joe considers asking Ruben to leave the deaf compound, as Ruben no longer can accept his situation and instead works against the community's goals to be considered as able as hearing individuals.
Without giving away the movie's end, Ruben again finds Lou, only to realize that his ideal world of the past has not remained static. People change and they grow. Ruben must either understand that or destroy himself in the process.
There have been other attempts in the movies to tell stories of deaf individuals -- Wonderstruck with Julianne Moore comes to mind. But in that film and others, the suspense comes from the triumph of hearing again or, in the case of the hoary The Miracle Worker, of learning to stand up for oneself in a sort of ritual by fire. And there are more gruesome examples of victimhood, such as Johnny Belinda, the 1948 film where a deaf character is raped and cannot defend herself.
But in all those films and others, it is the external support of another that saves the deaf individual from a life of sadness and isolation. There is no Annie Sullivan in Sound of Metal, only an angry rock drummer who cannot fathom life without one of his senses. Ruben's journey is not even worth saving by some individuals in the deaf home where he resides, after he singlehandedly rejects their lifestyle for the Shangri La provided by a cochlear implant. It drives him to sell his trailer, his possessions, his sound board and, some would say, his soul.
You cannot blame Ruben; he has become a creature of his environment, where music surrounds him and gives him energy. But he must learn that it is a fickle god, willing to sacrifice its servants for its own craven tastes. It leaves Ahmed's character on the outside, trying to get back to the middle again but failing first to understand his new life circle.
Seen from this perspective, Sound of Metal has its pleasures. It is not an easy movie to watch, both due to its lack of inspiring plot and a main character stuck in his own head and surly about it. But it is rewarding, with a quiet ending that is downright moving.