Ahmed is Ruben, a drummer in Blackgammon, a heavy metal duo fronted by his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The pair live in an RV, criss-crossing the country on tour before going into the studio to make an album. He’s an aggressive player, part Lars Ulrich, part Chuck Biscuits, whose booming style is the sound of frustration and bellicosity manifested on stage six nights a week. At a gig in Missouri his ears ring and soon stop working. On stage and off all he hears is a muffled roar. A visit to the doctor reveals he has lost more than seventy percent of his hearing is gone and won’t come back. “Eliminate all exposure to loud noises,” he’s told. “Your first responsibility is to preserve the hearing you have left.”
As he and Lou try and plot a way forward Ruben becomes obsessed with the idea of cochlear implant surgery than accepting his hearing loss. At a cost of $40-$80,000 they are out of reach for now so in the short-term Lou takes Ruben, who has been sober for four years, to a “clean” house, run by deaf counselor Joe (Paul Raci). He’s welcome to stay but this is a solo gig. As Ruben learns how to be deaf Lou must give him space. In the coming weeks anger and dissatisfaction lead to acceptance as he learns about his new life but never lets go of the idea that implants will allow him to return to his old life. “Our main tenet is that deafness is not a handicap,” says Joe, “not something to be fixed.”
“Sound of Metal” makes you walk a mile in Ruben’s shoes. Applying immersive sound design, writer-director Darius Marder toggles between Ruben’s point-of-view and real-world sounds. The muffled sound of the world filtered through his damaged ears portray his sensory deprivation in an intense way. As his desperation and frustration grow the sound design hammers home the devastating effects of hearing loss.
In addition, Marder close captions much of the film, dropping the subtitles when Ruben is learning sign language, once again involving the audience in his learning curve.
As Ruben, Ahmed brings a nervous energy to the role. He’s always in motion, unable to find a still moment for contemplation or acceptance. As his frustration gives way to a reluctant acceptance, he brings us along for the journey, giving us insight into a person’s whose life has been blown apart.
Raci as Joe, a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing in the war emerges as a force. In real life Raci grew up with deaf parents, is a Court Certified American Sign Language interpreter, and the lead singer for a heavy metal band that performs in American Sign Language. With great warmth, tinged with firmness, he steals every scene he’s in.
“Sound of Metal” is specific in its setting but ultimately is a story of accepting the curveballs life throws at you.