Amazon's 'Sound of Metal' Is Low-Key One of the Best Movies of 2020

The drama stars Riz Ahmed as a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing.

sound of metal riz ahmed
Amazon Prime
Amazon Prime

Sound of Metal, directed by The Place Beyond the Pines writer Darius Marder and starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer forced to come to terms with sudden deafness, is in a class of its own. The experimental drama, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, is filled with surprises and is secretly one of the best movies of this year.

Ruben Stone (Ahmed) and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are on tour as heavy metal duo Blackgammon, sleeping in their trailer during the day and filling their nights with the rumbling, searing feedback of their amps and the crashing of cymbals, when one day, for no discernible reason other than years spent blasting his eardrums with pure sound, Ruben suddenly goes almost completely deaf. His hearing is reduced to muffled mumbles and vibrations he can only hear if something is physically touching his ear, and his attempts to continue performing results in failure.

Ruben is in the throes of a nightmare for anyone who makes their living with music, a nightmare thrown into stark relief by a doctor who confirms that, instead of going away, it will only get worse unless he seeks help. Reluctantly, Ruben agrees to join a community joined by the enigmatic Joe (Paul Raci, a revelation), who is determined to teach Ruben a new way to think about his situation: that being deaf is not something "broken" that Ruben needs to "fix."

Another movie might simply stop there, but Sound of Metal introduces a deeper layer, empathetically examining addiction through the lens of Ruben's singleminded determination to make himself "better." A former drug addict, sober for four years, Ruben nevertheless retains his addictive personality, focusing it this time on the eternal hope of regaining what he's lost, without realizing exactly what it is he's doing. The only one who does is Joe, who tirelessly and frankly reminds Ruben that he has moved from one community into another, and trying to reconstruct something he's lost will set him adrift, a member of neither. "We're looking for a solution to this," Joe says during one conversation, pointing to his forehead. "Not this," he continues, gesturing to his ears. 

What really makes Sound of Metal something special is Marder's commitment to making the entire film a modified experience. The sound design is so crucial it's a bummer that there wasn't really an opportunity for most people to see this during its theatrical run. Everything is precisely tuned, from the muffled, inaudible dialogue to the intensity of Ruben and Lou's band, and for most of the film the audience hears and understands only what Ruben does. It's also entirely subtitled, except for the sections during which the characters are speaking in sign language, to replicate Ruben's experience of being in a place where he doesn't know the language—as well as replicating, in reverse, the experience of the hearing-impaired in a world that isn't designed for them. 

In this way Sound of Metal is a collectively disarming experience for everyone watching, and takes great pains to present the life of those with hearing impairments in a constructive way, without romanticizing the differently abled or presenting them as serene figures of zen-like acceptance. Marder also made a point to cast primarily actors with hearing impairments, and Ahmed learned both drumming and American Sign Language for the role. Ahmed, whose performance has rightly been described as career-best, plays Ruben with a constant undercurrent of terror, alleviated only by the moments in which he allows himself to relax into his new environment, before he remembers his compulsion to fight against the new reality. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.