Sound of Metal's premise is frightening in its simplicity: a rock and roll drummer (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing. Going in to the film, I had assumed that we would watch as Ahmed's character, Ruben, struggles against a slow and uncertain decline. In fact Ruben's deafness comes quite quickly and quite completely. Before you know it, his bandmate/girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) plunks him off at a hearing-impaired halfway house – Ruben's four years of sobriety are at risk due to this unexpected trauma – and vanishes. Over an unclear amount of time, Ruben adjusts to this new chapter of his life as he, as one character puts it, "learns how to be deaf". It's not the film I expected, yet it's a very good film: bittersweet, thoughtful, and human.
Lackadaisical in its storytelling, Sound of Metal could have easily been boring. Yet it works, mainly because of Ahmed's focused, realistic performance. Working off a spare screenplay written by director Darius Marder and his brother Abraham (Marder developed the story with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance), Ahmed and Marder require only a whiff of exposition to give you a full sense of who this character is, where he comes from, and how he deals with his new condition. The film also takes a respectful look at the deaf community and the fierce pride they take in what non-hearing-impaired people see as a handicap.
For all the acclaim surrounding Ahmed, Sound of Metal's secret VIP is Nicolas Becker. While he shares composer credit with Abraham Marder, Becker is also, more importantly, the supervising sound editor. For a story about how hearing loss affects a musician, Becker's work, which must include at least fifty variations on "muffled", literally puts you inside Ruben's head. At times the soundtrack is almost unbearably claustrophobic, but just when you think you can't take any more, a moment of silence or crisp dialogue suddenly rushes in, and you become reminded of how much we the hearing take for granted.