Sound of Metal is in some ways original and some ways familiar. It blends that familiarity and originally exceptionally well, with standout performances and a glimpse into a world most of us do not know.
Rock drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is touring with his musical and romantic partner Lulu (Olivia Cooke) when he starts having difficulty hearing, the sounds coming to him as muffled and disjointed. Whether due to years of hard rocking or a preexisting condition Ruben, for all intents and purposes, is deaf.
His depression and anger is so much that there are fears he may slip back into drug addiction after four years of sobriety. With that, he is reluctantly persuaded to go to a treatment facility that specializes in treatment for deaf addicts. Overseen by Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben shifts from struggling to easing his way into the deaf world.
Ruben, however, still wants to get his hearing back via surgery, secretly keeping tabs on Lulu and selling their RV and equipment to raise the funds. His decision affects his life in ways even he did not expect, realizing that despite what he wants he is in a new world, one that he might actually embrace.
Sound of Metal is a simultaneously quiet and loud film; it's quiet in how it takes its time with Ruben, moving slowly as he begins to crumble and then shifts from sullen to almost happy to desperate to perhaps in the end accepting. It is loud in the literal sense at times: particularly during the rock concert scenes, I had to cover my ears due to the high noise level. The sound work on Sound of Metal is excellent: capturing Ruben's hearing and what a non-deaf person would hear. The various shifts work within the film.
The subtitles that appear in Sound of Metal also work, and that is something extremely rare in film. Perhaps because I tend to put on subtitles whenever I see a film it look a bit longer for me to notice, but it was an excellent decision to carry out the subtitles throughout. It was an equally excellent decision to not put subtitles every time someone signed, letting the viewer experience what Ruben experienced.
At the heart of Sound of Metal's success are the performances. Ahmed is exceptional as Ruben. As co-written by director Darius Marder (screenplay by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder, story by Darius and Derek Cianfrance), Ruben's journey is pretty much to be expected: going from frustrated and angry to possibly embracing his new life while still hungering and scheming to get his old one back. However, Ahmed makes Ruben a more complex person.
A lot of his best moments are when he is silent, whether expressing rage to irritation or even a bit of joy when laughing with his fellow deaf addicts, Ahmed expresses so much with his face and eyes and body. He also does have excellent moments when speaking. Of particular note is when he attempts to get money from Joe to get his RV back and for him to stay on despite hiding his operation. As Joe observes, "You sound like an addict". It's a brilliant and heartbreaking moment.
This leads me to Raci, who should be on anyone's shortlist for Best Supporting Actor consideration. He is a caring man but also one who is not ashamed of who he is. "You don't need to fix anything here," Joe tells Ruben when the latter offers to make repairs around the facility but which may be a rouse to get to Joe's computer. The double meaning is clear, and Raci delivers it in such a way as to suggest Joe is telling Ruben his deafness isn't something to "fix". Raci's performance to my mind is as equal if not slightly stronger than Ahmed's, great as the latter's is. He displays quiet strength, pride and no sense of shame about deafness (in the film, Joe can read lips).
Rounding out the cast is Cooke, an actress I've admired since her work on Bates Motel. She is almost unrecognizable in her makeup, and we see in Lulu a woman who cares for Ruben, perhaps even loving him, but who also has moved on with her life when she returns to Paris to be with her father Richard (Mathieu Amalric in a small role).
That's one of Sound of Metal's strengths. There are no villains or heroes, just flawed people making decisions they think are for the best. It treats the situation seriously, with no drifting into potential romances between Ruben and the deaf child teacher. It doesn't infantilize or idolize the deaf, instead treating them as people who unlike most cannot hear and communicate with Sign Language. It's to where Sound of Metal almost inspires one to learn the language.
I suspect curiously that the use of subtitles in Sound of Metal may actually throw people off, but it would be a disservice to skip it because of that. With an interesting story and strong performances all around, Sound of Metal wraps the viewer into this world both of the deaf and of Ruben's journey into it.