Acting teachers have a handy tip for how to play drunk: Don’t act like you’re drunk. Novices will make the mistake of overdoing everything — throwing their arms around and slurring their speech to really emphasize how inebriated they are — but if you observe actual drunk people, what you’ll notice is that, often, they’re tightly controlled because they don’t want to let on how drunk they are. In theory, a good performance hints at the ripples of chaos just beneath the surface of a person trying to act like everything’s normal.
The exceptional Sound of Metal will receive a lot of attention for its remarkable depiction of hearing loss — a condition faced by its main character, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) — but its formal audacity might make you miss the heartbreaking portrait of addiction that’s also contained within the film. The story of a drummer who’s been sober for four years but is now fighting the old cravings after he goes deaf, Sound of Metal isn’t nearly as abrasive as its provocative title suggests. Rather, it’s a compassionate but clear-eyed look at a young man barely holding on once he loses his sense of self along with his hearing. And Ahmed’s performance is so terrific because of how fragile it is. Plunged into silence, Ruben is fighting hard to keep his inner chaos in check, determined to do everything in his power to get back to what he considers “normal.” Turns out, everything he’s running from — both his deafness and his addiction — has something to teach him.
Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, the film (which comes to theaters this Friday before landing on Amazon Prime Video on December 4th) opens with a scene that explains why Ruben’s hearing has become so damaged. He’s on stage behind his kit performing as part of Blackgammon, a punk/metal/noise-rock duo that features singer, guitarist and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Massive amounts of guitar feedback dominate the soundtrack, and at the bottom of the screen we see closed-captioning that describes the noises we’re hearing: “[sound of guitar feedback]” and “[distorted guitar]” and “[audience cheering].” Don’t adjust your audio settings: Throughout, Sound of Metal will include such descriptions, as well as subtitled dialogue. For those who have no problem hearing, the movie wants to immerse you in the experience of deafness. It’s a world that Ruben will soon know intimately.
Blackgammon are an under-the-radar band, grinding from shitty tour date to shitty tour date in Ruben’s reliable Airstream. His romantic relationship with Lou corresponded with his kicking heroin, and although he’s the recovering addict, she has her own issues. (We get hints that she suffers from anxiety and can self-harm.) They had dreams of finally recording an album once they cobbled together enough money, but those plans have to be put on hold once Ruben wakes up one morning and can’t get his ears to pop. In fact, he can’t hear anything, and the closed-captioning only underlines all the sounds he’s now deprived of, like a coffee pot filling up or a shower running. Understandably, Ruben panics — to lose one of your five senses would be traumatic for anyone, but for him, deafness means potentially losing the ability to pursue his creative passion — and Lou tries to comfort him, understanding that this could send him on a downward spiral in which he’ll want to start using again.
After calling Ruben’s sponsor, Lou learns of a unique sober house for the Deaf in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest. Ruben doesn’t want to go — he just wants to figure out how to earn enough money to pay for cochlear-implant surgery so he can get his life back — but Lou gives him no choice. Clearly, she knows what he can be like when he falls off the wagon.
When they arrive at this Deaf community, they meet Joe (Paul Raci), who runs the center and plans to teach Ruben American Sign Language (ASL) so he can acclimate to his new life. (Raci is a CODA, a child of Deaf adults, who reads lips and whose first language is ASL.) Joe has had his own battles with addiction, and his tough-love demeanor is established early on when he explains to Ruben that Lou won’t be able to stay with him. (Ruben will have to give up his phone and keys, too.) Not only has he lost his hearing, he’ll have to let go of everything else as well. But Joe insists Ruben can rebuild himself and embrace his deafness. Ruben’s not so sure.
Hollywood has occasionally tackled rehab, whether in Clean and Sober or 28 Days or A Million Little Pieces, and the narrative trajectory in these films tends to be similar: Addict initially resists seeking help, finds no-nonsense mentor, gets in touch with deep-seated psychological scar and ultimately emerges as a better, wiser person. Sound of Metal isn’t far removed from that basic plotline, but it’s consistently more original and emotional than the standard addiction drama. Partly, that’s because Marder and Ahmed resist the urge to be showy about the fact that they’re making an addiction drama. Often with those other films, there’s a degree-of-difficulty ostentatiousness that’s meant to wow us. (“Oh man, Sandra Bullock is such a convincing drunk!”)
Unlike the characters in those other movies, Ruben has been sober for a while, but deafness has rattled him, shaking his resolve. As a result, Sound of Metal isn’t about going cold turkey or melodramatically pouring bottles of alcohol down the sink. It’s not interested in all the actorly anguish that usually accompanies these films. Ruben may be an addict, but his woes go deeper. Sound of Metal is an exploration of him trying to make peace with that fact.
Ahmed has been doing great film work for a decade now, proving equally deft at comedy (Four Lions) and drama (Nightcrawler). (That said, the best thing he’s ever done might still be the HBO limited series The Night Of.) His hair bleached yellow and tattoos adorning his chest — including one that says “Please Kill Me” — Ruben has a scruffy, live-wire intensity from the moment we meet him, but Joe will help him to get in touch with his gentler, stiller side. (It won’t be easy, though: The first time Ruben tries to sit in an empty room and jot down his thoughts in a notebook, he’s so antsy that he pulverizes the donut on the table in front of him.)
But the performance is less about big moments than varying degrees of quiet surrender as Ruben starts to become comfortable with deafness and the permanent changes it may bring to his life. Spending time with Deaf children is humbling for this punk rocker, who is teased by the signing students who don’t understand why a grownup can’t grasp ASL. The Serenity Prayer, a staple of Alcoholics Anonymous, takes on added meaning for Ruben: He needs the serenity to accept that he cannot change his deafness.
This is an exceedingly lovely film, especially when Ruben and Joe begin to bond over deafness and addiction. (Raci, a recovering addict himself, eschews the wise-mentor clichés that usually accompany such a character. He’s too real — too plainspoken and unsentimental — to allow any sappiness.) Sound of Metal is very matter-of-fact about chemical dependence. There’s no great mystery that Ruben needs to solve about himself — he merely has to find the strength to stay sober as he adjusts to this new life. And just so I’m clear, Sound of Metal never makes deafness seem like some terrible tragedy or horrible affliction. Quite the contrary, Marder ensures that the scenes with Deaf characters are filled with vibrancy and joy — and not in some cloying, patronizing “The Deaf are people, too!” way. In this community, Ruben finds a home that (we come to learn) he’s never had up to that point in his life. The challenge will be seizing this opportunity and not be tempted to pursue a surgery that could restore his hearing. When he finally does make his choice, though, it results in Sound of Metal’s most beautiful, heartbreaking sequence.
Movies about addiction want to leave us with a measure of hope. Yes, people can overcome their demons — yes, we’re stronger than our disease. Fittingly for a film that wants to honor addicts by not trotting out the same old tropes, Sound of Metal goes in another direction. The movie’s finale involves a reunion of Ruben and Lou — and a realization that both characters have gone through something profound in the time they’ve been apart. There’s no pat resolution here. Like his deafness, addiction isn’t something that Ruben can lick — it takes courage to understand that some conditions are permanent. Sound of Metal has the wisdom to know the difference.