”Sound of Metal” is an act of empathy, and like a lot of empathy, it does not come easily.
Although he’s a fascinating medley of contradictions, lead character Ruben (Riz Ahmed, who’s sensational) is not particularly likable. A recovering addict who has been sober for four years, he lies to the most important people in his life.
As the movie opens, Ruben is going deaf and reluctantly agrees to go to a rehab facility where the patients also can’t hear. Defying the facility credo that “Being deaf is not a handicap, not something to fix,” Ruben schemes to finance an implant that he believes, incorrectly, will restore his hearing so he can go back to being a heavy metal drummer, something we know is never going to happen.
In an effort to help us understand Ruben, writer/director Darius Marder employs a number of unusual techniques. Like Ruben, we often can’t make out dialogue, although we can see that someone is speaking. Captions tell us what characters are signing and describe sounds such as street noise or the scrape of a chair leg. And, after Ruben gets his implants — sacrificing everything, including his home, to pay for them — we hear sound as he does, as if it’s mocking us with its painful near-unintelligibility.
The distorted music is especially hard to listen to. Music was the thing Ruben knew he was good at, but without his skills as a drummer, he believes he’s been left with nothing. Even after he’s told his hearing loss is permanent, he grasps at possible fixes, and the movie stays neutral on whether that’s hope or denial.
“Sound of Metal” doesn’t keep secrets from us, but it also doesn’t spell out everything. For instance, the first time a character appears, we may not know who he is. Like people we meet for the first time, the film’s characters decline to introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, I’m Bob and, although we’ve just met, I will ultimately be very significant in your life.”
Unlike movie characters who look deep inside themselves and solve all their problems within 120 minutes, Ruben barely manages two steps forward for each two steps back. His issues may be extreme, but he feels like a lot of us do in that he thought he knew where his life was going until fate intervened.
It’s not easy to watch, honestly. But it is gripping because Ahmed and Marder are diligent in their refusal to tell us what to think. Ruben makes mistakes, lots of them, but it’s as if this movie is saying, “This is a tough situation, so can we at least spare him the indignity of judging him?”
The final scene is one of those protagonist-gazing-toward-the-camera long shots that threaten to become gimmicky in the wake of “Call Me by Your Name,” but it works here because Ruben, having been through a lot and maybe learned a little, looks straight at us, as if daring us to walk in his shoes. Marder cuts out the sound in that scene, which replicates the world as Ruben experiences it but also reminds us that sometimes the strongest statement is one without words.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
Sound of Metal
⋆⋆⋆ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for language and brief nudity.
Where: Lagoon and select Emagine theaters, Friday only; streaming on Amazon Dec. 4.