I have always believed that movies exist to make the audience feel something — which is the whole point of art for me, to make us feel something by taking us through the journey of characters who in turn are going through something. Sound of Metal makes you understand and empathize with a drummer who lost his hearing. With a splendid job in direction and writing, Darius Marder made a kickass debut.
Ruben (impeccably played by Riz Ahmed) is a heavy-metal drummer and an accompanist to his singer-girlfriend Lou. Minutes into the movie, we see Ruben realizing that his hearing has been compromised drastically. He goes to a doctor and understands that he lost 80-90% of his hearing and will lose the rest in no time. He also learns that the expensive cochlear implant may help him hear. As anyone dealing with a huge loss might, Ruben denies that this is serious. He tells Lou that it is not a big deal and that he will get the money to have the surgery, and he will be back like before. But, Lou fears his previous addiction to heroin; though he's been clean for four years, she knows that trauma like this had the potential of leading him back. So, she checks him into rehab for deaf people.
Joe, who runs the rehab, tells Ruben that it is not a place that'll fix him but a place that will help him live with his loss. Here, Ruben finds himself with many deaf people and even deaf kids and eventually learns how to use sign language. Joe even makes him sit in an empty room with nothing other than a book and a pen to make him understand and appreciate the stillness. In many ways, Sound of Metal is a movie about a restless soul finding peace and calm. But Ruben is still hopeful that the surgery will fix everything and still refuses to accept that perhaps deafness isn't as bad as he seems to think it is, and he ultimately leaves the rehab to get the cochlear implants.
The ending is where the magic happens. Thanks to the top-notch sound editing, we can now experience what Ruben is hearing: a flawed metallic garble via the implants. This is when Ruben realizes that he can never go back to who he was, and the implants are not the solution he thought they would be. We go through portions of hearing nothing at all, hearing things as they are through the implant, and then Ruben removes his implants as he spends the final moments of the movie looking up at the sun through the trees before the credits roll. Did Ruben finally accept his new life? The ending scene shows the hope that he did.
Though the movie had a terrific script carrying it, with the extremely marvelous sound design keeping us inside Ruben's head and helping us experience what he is hearing, it is actually Riz Ahmed's brilliance that made the movie work. In order for a movie to showcase its depth, the actor playing the role should first believe in its depth, and I believe that is no small feat; Riz Ahmed achieves this flawlessly.