Sound of Metal is the kind of movie that, when it premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, seemed easy to lose in all the noise: a modestly scaled drama whose unhurried pacing and scrappy, naturalistic tone spoke nearly as loudly as its intermittent dialogue. It also turned out to be one of 2019's best small surprises, even if its relatively esoteric subject — a thrash-punk drummer confronts hearing loss — faces even steeper odds for attention in the chaos-walking of 2020. (The film is now in limited theaters, and hits Amazon Prime Dec. 4.)
Riz Ahmed (Rogue One), hair bleached white and sinewy arms laced with stick-and-poke tattoos, is Ruben, crisscrossing America with his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Ready Player One's Olivia Cooke, also creatively peroxided), in the neat little Airstream that is both faithful transportation and home base. The clubs they play are small and sticky and the money mostly nonexistent, but it's clearly a routine that Ruben, four years sober, finds comfort and safety in. So when his ears suddenly seem to turn against him mid-show — the whole clamorous world reduced to a muffled vacuum — his first reaction, understandably, is outright denial.
Lou is quicker to see what he doesn't want to: that life as they knew it is gone. There's a place for him to go, a sort of rural retreat for deaf people also struggling with substance abuse. But he has to do it alone, and cut off contact to follow the rules. Ruben agrees mostly because he has no choice — and because as soon as he can find the funds, he's sure, he can get implant surgery; anything past that strains not just his patience but his imagination.
Metal is the feature debut of writer-director Darius Marder, who is probably best known for penning the script for 2012's The Place Beyond the Pines, and though its measured unfurling requires a certain kind of endurance, he trusts his story enough not to rush or make it showy. There's an intimately lived-in quality to the film that feels almost documentary, even as it uses editing and sound design to ingenuously mark the widening gulf between Ruben's hushed interior world and the frenetic, clanging one outside of him.
Several hearing-impaired actors and allies also add a note of authenticity, including The Walking Dead's Lauren Ridloff as a sign-language teacher and Paul Raci as the blunt but not unkind counselor who runs the place. The London-born Ahmed, an Emmy winner several years ago for HBO's The Night Of, reportedly spent months learning ASL and drumming, but the resonance of his performance lies in more than faithful technique. As Ruben's fear and rage begins to open itself to the unknown, the movie reaches toward something profound — finding real, furious power in the spaces between the sound. Grade: A-