There’s a moment in this searing drama that has newly deaf drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) confronted with an innocuous tableau at the rehab clinic he’s checked into: a blank page, a pen, a cup of steaming coffee and a doughnut. He’s been encouraged to write something – anything – about what he’s feeling. Instead, in a starburst of rage and frustration, he smashes the doughnut. Then he reshapes it. Then he smashes it again. It’s as economical and articulate a character beat as it is a terrible way to eat a doughnut. Here is a man torn between his pain and anger and his desperate attempt to hold it all together.
Even by his own stupidly high standards, Ahmed is magnetic – both as the sinewy drummer of the noise-rock band he shares with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, also terrific) and in the moments of confusion, fear of relapse and mute despair that follow his diagnosis. Ahmed learnt American Sign Language and drumming for the role and that commitment tells in every heartfelt moment.
Equally good is Paul Raci as Joe, the deaf Vietnam vet who welcomes Ruben into his rehab community and who provides the notepad, the doughnut and a path to acceptance. How the 73-year-old actor is not a household name is this clear-eyed film’s only mystery.
Unusually, director Darius Marder gives the film open captions – subtitles appear throughout – making it as accessible as possible for hearing and deaf viewers alike. And that sense of fellowship, of community, runs through this deeply empathetic film, which is also unafraid to leave Ruben submerged and overwhelmed in a world of muffled sounds and indistinct words. Ruben, of course, wants to haul himself out of it. But Sound of Metal is about learning to swim.