Riz Ahmed, left, and Paul Raci are superb in the powerful “Sound of Metal.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)

Riz Ahmed, left, and Paul Raci are superb in the powerful “Sound of Metal.” (Courtesy Amazon Studios)

‘Sound of Metal’ tells an emotional story of deafness

Darius Marder’s debut feature has strong characters, performances

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Many movies about maladies, illnesses, disablements or other conditions put up for Oscar consideration make the mistake of only focusing on the problem.

But the powerful new “Sound of Metal,” slated to open Friday in select cinemas including the Embarcadero and streaming on Amazon Prime starting Dec. 4, works because it’s really about characters and politics, emotions and empathy.

Certainly it has its eye-rolling moments, as when a slightly wobbly hand-held camera solemnly contemplates the lead character, drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), who is shocked to discover that he’s losing his hearing.

As it begins, Ruben plays thundering drums for a metal band called Blackgammon. His girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) — her eyebrows bleached ghostly white — plays clamorous guitar and shrieks unintelligible lyrics.

In the morning, Ruben happily prepares a healthy breakfast for himself and Lou in their humble RV. But while setting up the merch table for that night’s gig, Ruben suddenly has a drop in his hearing. The soundtrack complies, letting us know that everything is muffled. He — and we — can’t hear a word anyone says.

A doctor tells him that he has lost most of his hearing, and that avoiding loud noises is the only way to hang on to what remains. He also mentions the possibility of cochlear implants, at the cost of $40,000 to $80,000, which insurance does not cover.

After unwisely struggling through the gig, Ruben winds up at a kind of camp for deaf people, run by Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his hearing in the war. The mission of the camp is to encourage deaf people to learn how to be deaf, and to be OK with it.

But Ruben dreams of getting back to music and to Lou, and won’t let go of the idea of the implants. He sells everything he has and goes through with it.

When he asks Joe if he can stay for a few more weeks to recover, Joe tells him no. The people there believe that deafness is not something that needs to be fixed, and Ruben has taken steps to “fix” his. He is no longer welcome.

This is a real thing. Josh Aronson’s excellent 2000 documentary “Sound and Fury” (available to rent on Apple TV) goes more into detail about the dividing line among the deaf community over implants, versus communicating via the beautiful American Sign Language.

“Sound of Metal” communicates this strongly-held belief simply and powerfully.

It also perfectly illustrates the downside of cochlear implants with an inspired sound design. Through the implants, everything sounds slightly tinny, metallic (the title offers a dual meaning).

In one unforgettable scene, Ruben attends a party at Lou’s family’s home. The various conversations blur into a noisy buzz and he has a hard time hearing any one thing clearly.

Then, Lou and her father (Mathieu Amalric) sing a lovely little duet at the piano. We hear the song normally, and then the camera drifts through the partygoers until it lands on Ruben. The soundtrack shifts to his point of view, and the song dissolves into a hissing, crackling mess.

Ruben’s heartbreak is perfectly conveyed by Ahmed, who fulfills the promise of his breakthrough performance in 2014’s “Nightcrawler.”

He’s at his best in the early scenes, conveying the blood-chilling existential dread of the initial realization he is going deaf. Such a simple thing, taken for granted, so easily gone.

But the most fascinating performance is by Raci, as Joe. Wise, slightly grizzled, but calm and zenlike, he speaks in a no-nonsense, soft growl; his signing is almost like a dance. (Raci, who according to IMDb, has acted in small parts for decades, is a child of deaf parents and is in a band that performs in ASL.)

“Sound of Metal” is directed and co-written by Darius Marder, who co-wrote Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 “The Place Beyond the Pines” and received help from Cianfrance on this, Marder’s feature debut.

The movie’s one troublesome flaw is that we have no idea how long Ruben is at the camp before he sees Lou again. Clearly, it was long enough for him to learn a decent amount of ASL, but has it been months? A year? Was Lou expected to wait for him?

On the other hand, Ruben works with a pretty teacher, Diane (Lauren Ridloff), taking care of a class of deaf children. Even if this situation starts to look a little obvious, it’s not. The movie is about more than romantic fulfillment.

Marder gives his film a lived-in look, slightly drab, but fitting with Ruben and his wardrobe of ripped T-shirts and band-logo hoodies.

“Sound of Metal” winds up uneasily, with no real answers, and with Ruben still facing a hard struggle ahead. But it has an unforgettable final moment that finds poetry in silence.

REVIEW

Sound of Metal

★★★½

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric

Written by: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance

Directed by: Darius Marder

Rated: R

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

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