‘Sound of Metal’ Movie Review: Riz Ahmed in a Compelling, Emotional Drama [AFI Fest]

One of the great powers of movies is to allow viewers to understand people and events they will never experience themselves. Another great power is to allow viewers to feel seen when a story portrays their unique experience. From this perspective, Sound of Metal is win-win, featuring a powerful performance by Riz Ahmed in a sensitive drama by Darius Marder. 

Riz Ahmed in ‘Sound of Metal’

Ruben (Ahmed) is the drummer for singer Lou (Olivia Cooke). After prolonged exposure to loud music of their own creation, Ruben loses three-quarters of his hearing. The medical prognosis is that Ruben must eliminate his exposure to loud noise so they can re-evaluate.

Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed | Amazon Studios

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A cochlear implant may be possible, but it costs $40,000-$80,000 and insurance doesn’t cover it. The film never indicates whether or not Ruben has health insurance. It would be moot since cochlear implants are out of pocket, but as an independent musician, Ruben doesn’t seem like a guy who bought his own coverage or applied for ACA.

To help, Lou connects Ruben with Joe (Paul Raci), a deaf veteran who runs a program for the Deaf. Ruben reluctantly enrolls in the program, meaning separation from Lou, but his heart is not totally in it. The way Ruben sees it, he’s biding his time until he can raise the money for his implant and get back to music. 

A devastating performance by Riz Ahmed 

Ahmad portrays a lot of Ruben’s journey without dialogue. Ruben wasn’t a vocally expressive guy before his hearing loss. Now that he can’t hear others, from his partner Lou to Joe and the folks at his program, Ruben is even more isolated. 

Ruben is all rage. Ahmed conveys that intensity relentlessly throughout Sound of Metal. Ruben was also a heroin addict. He’s four years sober, and a lot of what Joe deals with combines coping with hearing loss and preventing a relapse. Raci is a character actor, child of deaf adults, American Sign Language interpreter and musician. 

Paul is the heart and soul of Sound of Metal. He has exercises for Ruben that involve doing less. Ruben is not the first person he’s met who’s resistant to his program, but his methods are inclusive, not resistant.

The only problem with watching Sound of Metal at home is that a few key scenes hinge on handwritten notes. They’re too small to read on a TV screen, let alone handwriting. You can get the gist though and it doesn’t hold up the film.

You won’t know where ‘Sound of Metal’ is going 

Sound of Metal is an unpredictable drama. It’s not quite the story of Ruben learning new skills or finding a new community. Ruben makes surprising choices as people do in real life when they’re not following a movie’s formula. That makes it hard to peg Sound of Metal but compelling to watch.

You can see when Ruben breaks Joe’s heart in ways Ruben doesn’t even understand. That’s the power of drama where you get to know the characters rather than worrying about explaining the plot. The consequences of a single decision can cut deeper. 

Sound of Metal premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and has made its way around the world festivals to AFI Fest. It will be on Amazon Dec. 4 for everyone to experience the raw emotion of the film.