The existential issue of disability is worried at in this vehemently acted addiction-recovery drama about a heavy-metal drummer who suddenly experiences hearing loss. Clearly, very personal experiences are here being transformed into fiction. Director and co-writer Darius Marder has avowedly based his movie in part on his hearing-impaired grandmother, and partly on an abandoned docu-drama project he was developing 10 years ago with director Derek Cianfrance called Metalhead, in which the real-life mega-decibel metal duo Jucifer were going to play a version of themselves in which the drummer is imagined to be (unsurprisingly) going deaf. Yet in this film, hearing loss isn’t the only issue at stake.
Riz Ahmed gives a typically fierce and focused performance as Ruben, drummer with an avant-metal band called Blackgammon; his partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) is guitarist and singer. They tour around the United States in an RV playing to loyal metalhead fanbases. They are happy enough until Ruben realises he can’t hear anything – a terrifying aural fog on the soundtrack – and the catastrophe is made even worse because he is a recovering heroin addict with serious relationship issues. Ruben’s sponsor suggests he applies to a radical therapeutic community run by a greying Vietnam veteran called Joe, in which role Paul Raci gives a quietly weighted and serious performance. Joe’s belief is that hearing-impaired people need to “learn how to be deaf”: to learn how to accept their condition as a valid alternative existence, and to find the stillness inside themselves which is the vital precondition for this learning process. But angry, bewildered Ruben is still planning to somehow get the money together for a costly, risky surgery that would restore some of his hearing – though that might mean selling his RV and his musical equipment, sabotaging the musical career that was supposedly the whole point.
Sound of Metal is a painful, thoughtful, sombre film that telescopes a long story into just a few months. Ruben pretty much immediately finds a doctor to give him the hearing tests, pretty much immediately finds a place in Joe’s community, pretty much immediately progresses from mutinous incomprehension to the beginnings of that surrendered wisdom that makes him an invaluable student-teacher for hearing-impaired kids. There’s a nice initial scene in which Ruben is invited to write his name on the board, and he truculently scrawls it in huge letters, making all the kids flinch. It’s the equivalent of yelling.
At first, it looks as if Sound of Metal is going to be all about the clash between Ruben and Joe and their differences of opinion. It’s actually not a million miles away from the difference in Children of a Lesser God (1979), between William Hurt’s idealistic teacher who believes in vocalisation and Marlee Matlin’s rebellious former student who opposes it in favour of sign language as something with a cultural authenticity of its own, though here the teacher/pupil attitude is reversed. But the narrative progresses beyond this, into something interestingly unfinished and unclosed, leading us to Lou’s own painful story, and her relationship with her father Richard (an intriguing if opaque cameo from Mathieu Amalric).
But how about Ruben’s drug problem? Is he going to relapse, or what? Or is the film trying to suggest that the world of heavy metal, so far from being an admirable artistic vocation or creative calling, is just itself a type of addiction – one, moreover, with an obvious disability risk? I’m not sure. This film could just as easily have been about a drummer going deaf who had no drug problem. Sound of Metal tries to do something else, something more complex, but it looks as if disability and addiction are uneasily muddled together, and the film never quite unravels the strands. But Ahmed’s performance clarifies the drama and delivers the meaning of Ruben’s final epiphany. He gives the film energy and point.