Riz Ahmed Emotionally Explores Hearing Loss in Potent ‘Sound of Metal’

Three years after winning an Emmy for his riveting portrayal of a college student accused of murder in the HBO limited series “The Night Of,” Riz Ahmed proves himself on the big screen in a different kind of drama, “Sound of Metal.” Ahmed stars as Ruben, a metal drummer who goes on an odyssey after he wakes up one morning and discovers that he has lost most of his hearing, a tragedy for any young person, but especially for one whose life revolves around music.

When Ruben is first introduced, he’s in a good place, touring alongside his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), the band’s singer. Living out of an RV is no excuse for unhealthy living, and every morning he prepares a healthy breakfast for the pair. However, we come to learn, it wasn’t always this way, and four years ago Ruben broke free from a life of substance abuse. He’s been with Lou since then, and some evidence, the most glaring being scars on her arm, suggests that she too has battled her own demons.

Everything changes when Ruben wakes up that fateful morning. After a doctor tells him that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating, it seems like all hope is lost, although there is a chance he can regain some of it by having a cochlear implant implanted, a very costly procedure. It goes without saying that this is a devastating development, and while he tries to hide his situation from Lou, he’s forced to tell everything after he fails to keep up with her at the next show. Sensing the threat to his sobriety, she takes him to Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who runs a sober living house for the deaf, eventually making the difficult decision to leave him there while she goes off and takes care of herself. It’s an emotional departure, and both Ahmen and Cooke deliver as Ruben and Lou are faced with separation after being each other’s rock for so long.

Incredibly anxious, Ruben is taken in by Joe. Having lost his hearing years ago when a bomb went off close to him in Vietnam, Joe has long made peace with his condition, so much so that he no longer sees being deaf as a disability. From here, Ruben’s focus shifts to learning how to live as a deaf person, a journey that consists of not only learning ASL, but also how to still find joy in a life without sound, and this journey is certainly not linear. Ahmed lets his vulnerability shine through as Ruben puts aside his pride and learns to listen and take in his surroundings. In addition to Joe, he has others around him offering support, including kindhearted deaf teacher Diane (Lauren Ridloff) and Jenn (Chelsea Lee), another resident at the sober house who gives Ruben an opportunity to show off his creative skills when she asks him to draw her a racy tattoo. Both characters are played skillfully by deaf actors.

Writer-director Darius Marder goes that extra mile to keep the viewer with Ruben, starting with the innovative sound design that allows us to experience much of what he experiences. Also, in the beginning of Ruben’s stay in the sober house, none of the ASL is captioned. Only when Ruben starts to understand are we clued in. In addition, all of the dialogue is captioned in “Sound of Metal,” as it would have been irresponsible to have made a film centered around the deaf community that wasn’t accessible to them.

In the end, Ruben desperately attempts to go back to his former life, but no matter what steps he takes, it is clear that there is no going back. In the third act, the story temporarily becomes unbelievable when Ruben, with no one around to support him, goes ahead and undergoes a complex surgery. However, Marder gets back on track in the final scenes in which Ruben finds himself seeking answers on the other side of the world. By the end of it all, he and the viewer are left alone with their thoughts.

Sound of Metal” releases Nov. 20 in select cities and begins streaming Dec. 4 on Amazon Prime Video.