Directed by Darius Marder | Written by Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, and Derek Cianfrance | 120 min | Netflix
Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is an addict, four years sober. He drums for a hard core band, and his partner, Lou (Olivia Cooke), is the front person. They’ve got a pretty good thing going on — they live in a gorgeous Airstream and practice a healthy touring lifestyle in between sweaty, intense gigs. But, Ruben experiences sudden, catastrophic hearing loss. It takes him off the road, splits up the band, and puts his relationship on hold. He finds refuge in a rural community of adults who’ve experienced both addiction and deafness, with a school adjacent for children with hearing loss.
Here Ruben finds some respite from himself. This is a narrative of addiction, to some degree, but mostly it’s a character study of someone who’s his own worst enemy. It’s also a fascinating examination of a deaf community and how Ruben cleaves to and away from it.
I understood that people who live with deafness are a culture and a community — what else would you call a group of people who have their own language? — but this is the first time where a film made me understand how isolating deafness can be, that to enter the community demands a commitment to the others who are part of it.
The filmmakers also deserve major kudos for their sound design, courtesy of Nicolas Becker, to allow us to experience the distortion of what Ruben is, or isn’t, hearing, and for employing the impressive Paul Raci in a key role as the guy running the community that welcomes Ruben to manage his condition.
Marder shows an impressive confidence as a first-time feature filmmaker — though he’s clearly been mentored by Blue Valentine director Cianfrance. He does over-rely on the hand-held close-up, a cliche of authenticity in Sundance-friendly American indie cinema.
That said, he’s got Riz Ahmed’s face to fill the frame — I can understand the temptation. Ahmed’s been so good in films like The Sisters Brothers, Nightcrawler, and Rogue One, but here he’s unmistakably the lead and he doesn’t miss his shot — he plays Ruben as an entirely wired, entirely present character. He strikes a balance between the person who’ll do anything not to lose control and someone who has just enough self-awareness to function in a relationship. Through him we’re able to understand the terror that comes when suddenly and arbitrarily a sense you use to interact with the world — essential to your work and your identity — is irrevocably compromised. Powerful stuff.
One last thought: Like Breaking Bad, a big chunk of this plot would cease to work if it was set in Canada. Not to be smug about it, but narratives of the cost of healthcare in the United States are important to tell. It’s a reminder they could have it differently if they wanted to.