Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, an experimental metal drummer who suddenly, and without warning, loses most of his hearing. It effectively puts his career on hold, and places Ruben on a mission to regain his hearing at any cost. Hardcoded subtitles and impeccable sound design bring the audience along for Ruben’s frustrating ride, and Ahmed gives an awards-worthy performance (although if he steals a Best Actor win from Delroy Lindo, I might destroy a hotel room that I’ve reserved using someone else’s credit card).
Sound of Metal is a slower, quieter movie than the marketing would have you believe, but that’s ultimately a good thing, as it really gives Ahmed (and Ruben) time to change along with his circumstances. Where this fails is in the pacing. Time passes unevenly, often to the detriment of character. For example, one scene features Ruben being very resistant to the idea of learning sign language. The very next scene, displayed with no indication of time passing, sees Ruben completely fluent in sign language, and suddenly very enthused about teaching it to others.
Little things like this happen pretty regularly, and once you start to speak the film’s language it stops being so distracting, but it’s never not jarring in the moment. Add to that some confused messaging where the film seems to condemn Ruben’s desire to regain his hearing, and we find a very good film that misses multiple opportunities to be great.
Thematically, this sticks the landing hard, but getting there is rough. Learning to accept sudden and awful circumstances, furthermore learning to thrive within these limitations is an idea I can get behind. Giving up immediately on something that’s important to you is not. The film seems to think these two ideas are mutually exclusive when they very much aren’t. In avoiding potential offense to the deaf community (who, as I understand it, correctly see their limitation not as a disability, but rather a challenge to be met) by assuming that an audience may fail to see nuance has lead to messaging that is, you guessed it, largely free of nuance.
But as I said before, this small issue corrects itself in the end in a big way. All in all, this is a solid, interesting, very good movie that beautifully applies the talents of one of the best actors working today. It just could’ve been so much more.