Some actors you look forward to watching because you never know who they’re going to be next. Riz Ahmed has played fraught (as the lead in HBO’s “The Night Of"), gung-ho (”Rogue One"), villainous (“Venom”), and naïve (“Nightcrawler”), none of which may prepare you for his performance in “Sound of Metal” as a punk rock drummer who goes deaf. The film is low-key and observational, but Ahmed isn’t. On the contrary: He suggests a tightly compacted block of Semtex ready to detonate.
His character, Ruben, opens the movie on the road with lover/collaborator Lou (Olivia Cooke); they drive from gig to gig, where Lou’s guitar-scraping caterwauls are driven forward by Ruben’s propulsive, explosive drumming. It’s a haphazard life but a satisfying one, and then one day Ruben’s hearing just blinks out.
“Sound of Metal” opens at the Kendall Square on Friday and arrives on Amazon Prime Dec. 4, and if you can at all swing it I’d recommend watching the film with headphones on. The unique, inventive sound design by Nicholas Becker puts us inside the hero’s head with a realism that helps us understand his panic: Sounds that had been crystal clear are now underwater rumbles and words become muffled enigmas. A visit to an audiologist confirms that Ruben has lost 75 percent of his hearing, with the remainder in jeopardy. That night, stiff with denial, he’s back behind his drum kit.
Filmed on locations around the North Shore and directed by Darius Marder from a script by him, brother Abraham Marder, and Derek Cianfrance (director of “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”), “Sound of Metal” is at heart a character study, the story of a man who has relied on making noise to feel at home in the world and who greets silence as a threat and a nullification. We learn that Ruben is an addict, clean for the four years he has been with Lou, and part of the anger and fear he feels when she reluctantly drops him off at a halfway house for deaf people in recovery comes from his certainty that without her he’ll start using again.
But the halfway house is a haven, a fully realized world that includes an American Sign Language school for children — the teacher is played by Lauren Ridloff of “The Walking Dead”; Ruben ends up the biggest kid in her class — and a weary, wise overseer named Joe (Paul Raci, himself an ASL actor, activist, and rocker). Early in his stay, Joe makes up a chore board for everyone; Ruben’s job is “LEARN HOW TO BE DEAF.”
Ahmed has large, expressive eyes that can signal tenderness or glaze over with impatience; in “Sound of Metal” we see the two sides struggle for control. His face immobile under a bleach-blonde dye job, chest tense with muscles and home-made tattoos, Ruben has made a life out of rebellion, but how do you rebel against your own body? The promise of cochlear implants seems a lifeline, and the progress the hero makes in his new deaf community is on some level a charade: He plans to get out as soon as he can. “From where I’m sitting,” says Joe, “you look and sound like an addict.”
At a certain point “Sound of Metal” shifts gears and, without giving anything away, I again recommend the use of headphones, if only to “hear” the scenes the way Ruben does and understand the crossroads to which his choices have led him. A trip to Paris at first seems random, although it reintroduces Lou and brings on her father, who is played by the French actor Mathieu Almaric with grace notes above and beyond his few scenes. The final moments, however, are all Ruben’s, which is to say they’re all Ahmed’s, and the actor makes his character’s ultimate decision feel both hard won and achingly simple. Coming out toward the end of a year of great and terrible cacophony, “Sound of Metal” understands the gift that is hearing and the blessings of silence alike.
SOUND OF METAL
Directed by Darius Marder. Written by Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance. Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Almaric. At Kendall Square. Available on Amazon Prime starting Dec. 4. 121 minutes. R (language throughout, brief nude images)