“You don’t need to fix anything here.”
It’s a difficult thing to say to an addict, especially one who’s come close to rock bottom. Sometimes the only thing left in life is to try and fix things.
In The Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is that recovering addict, a drummer for a relatively anonymous heavy metal duo. When he begins to undergo rapid hearing loss, his deafness threatens to untether him from everything that’s kept him sober.
He enters a sort of commune for deaf addicts, run with tough efficiency by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing during the war. Joe challenges Ruben to stop trying to fix things, and just sit still. But Ruben is determined to get his hearing back, to hold onto the life that’s slipping away from him.
The movie may be called The Sound of Metal — but it’s all the sounds that resonate here. The sound design is exceptional: the ruffle of leaves, the clink of glass on the table or the taps and claps of a hand as it signs. The movie is a love song to sound. And at times it’s a heartwarming love letter to the deaf community. It goes more than 10 minutes with audible dialogue at one point, in favor of well-staged shots showing the quiet lives of people that are deaf.
Ahmed is electric in every move and glare, filled with manic energy as Ruben rages against his circumstances. And Raci is blessed with a moving and tender scene which he delivers simultaneously audibly, in sign language, and with manifest physical expression in a way that’s almost jaw-dropping.
But they do most of the heavy lifting here, and there’s little in the way of the plot that grabs the viewer. Despite Ahmed’s performance, we never quite understand how Ruben feels, how he’s processing all this. The pacing is frustrating, and the movie is barely rescued by a stronger second half after weakly meandering through the first hour or so.
The Sound of Metal is a mish-mash of ideas about acceptance and perseverance. It’s overlaid with repetitive shots and designs that impress how precious even the most mundane sounds can be. But the proceedings as a whole are cold and lifeless. The first shot sums up the movie: we’re watching Riz Ahmed do something exceptional, but I’m not sure I like the music.