Sound of Metal (2019)

Music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one.

Sound of Metal is an extraordinary film that delves deep into the psyche of a young man whose life is suddenly upturned by profound hearing loss. Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer working with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) in a mildly successful duo called Blackgammon. Whilst on tour, Ruben notes he has very suddenly lost approximately eighty percent of his hearing. He is given no real time to adjust to this change; it is immediate and permanent. His only chance of ever hearing again is to undergo an expensive surgery that will implant hearing technology. The film follows Ruben through his journey to understand and, perhaps, accept his condition. Whilst it would have been easy for the film to rely on melodrama and disability cliches, it instead becomes a subtle character study that also acts as a vehicle destigmatizing deafness.

The world of sound and vision

Opening on the heavily tattooed Ruben behind his drum kit on stage with Lou, the film gives the audience the first taste of the impressive sound design that will carry much of the film. Traditionally, identification with a character and their circumstances rests heavily on the camera, the eye in which we are granted knowledge of, and intimacy with, a character. In Sound of Metal, the camera is somewhat replaced with sound. The sound design carries the audience in and out of what Ruben is hearing to give us a palpable understanding of what it is he is experiencing. On stage, he hears what a drummer would. Lou’s vocals and guitar are loud but pointed away from him, and the most prominent sound is his drumming. Ahmed spent six months learning how to play the drums for the role making his performance on stage credible.

Lou and Ruben live in an airstream caravan and are presented as a deeply committed couple. As they drive along American highways to their next gig, they listen to music, dance, and joke. They are each other’s partners in all ways. When Ruben first notes his rapid hearing loss, Lou’s primary concern is how to help her lover. Through a third party, she finds a place for the terrified and angry Ruben to help come to terms with what is happening to him. The hook is that Ruben is four years sober from a heroin addiction (also the same amount of time he has been with Lou), and the fear is that the shock of his deafness will cause a relapse. They drive to a deaf community run for and by ex-addicts. There they meet the leader of the community, Joe (Paul Raci), who sets down a seemingly impossible rule for Ruben to remain there — he must give up any communication with the hearing world, including being with Lou. Although Ruben is initially extremely resistant to staying with the community, Lou forces the issue by leaving him. Although the two are still very much in love, Ruben has no way forward unless he begins to learn about what being deaf means.

Lou’s thundering voice in Blackgammon

Most of the film’s action centers on Ruben’s time with the community. His sole purpose there is to learn how to be deaf. Joe reiterates that none of the members of the community view being deaf as a disability. Being a part of the group means fixing the mental attitude to deafness, not trying to fix deafness itself. For Ruben, this task appears pointless and often frustrating as he believes it’s just a matter of time until he can have his implants and be a hearing person again.

In a powerful testament to the beauty and resilience of the deaf community, the film never lingers on the other members of the society feeling sorry for themselves. Attached to a deaf school, some of the most profound and beautiful parts of the film revolve around showing how normal the kids are. They play, they muck up in class, and make jokes. Ruben’s time with the children is sensitively drawn as he becomes an adjunct teacher in the classroom. Whilst he initially resented being asked to learn how to sit within his new state, his time with the class gives him purpose and normalizes his experience.

A new world of silence

In a clever flourish, it isn’t until Ruben begins to learn sign language that the film encodes subtitles. Like the sound design focusing on what Ruben can and cannot hear, it also focuses on what he can and cannot understand. Ahmed’s performance is one of subtle gestures and close-ups on his face and eyes as he seeks to understand the world around him. Where Ruben is lost, often the audience is too, which heightens the frustration that the character feels in missing out on information. This technique brings the viewer in intimate contact with Ruben’s predicament. As his closed world begins to open up through starting to comprehend the people around him, so too does the audience learn more about both the character and the community.

Ultimately Ruben makes the decision to go ahead with the surgery, which leads to Joe having to ask him to leave the community he made his home in. The point Joe makes is that Ruben has tried to “fix” himself, which would imply to the other members of the community that they are broken. Once again, the film restates that deafness is not considered an insurmountable issue or that non-hearing people are less than hearing people.

To truly love you, I have to leave you

Director Darius Marder is best known as a writer on Derek Cianfrance’s Place Beyond the Pines (2012). Here the roles are somewhat reversed, with Cianfrance sharing writing credits with Marder and his composer brother Abraham (Marder). Marder’s deft touch as a director is heightened by the incredible sound design by Nicholas Becker. The film relies on its ability to remove and distort one of the senses to create authenticity, and Becker’s work is outstanding. Silence and noise are each a palpable sensual experience for the viewer (and importantly, in this case, listener) of the film.

Rhiz Ahmed’s performance is incredibly moving. Ruben is a surprising character with depths that go against the audience expectations as to how a former addict and heavy metal drummer would behave. Yes, he shows anger and frustration, which is natural when he has lost both of his major loves, music, and the ability to be with Lou. Yet, it is not anger that drives Ruben; it is love. Ahmed manages to fully inhabit Ruben through the smallest of gestures and gives profound resonance to the character in a manner that is deeply empathetic and mature.

The sound of silence

Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One (2018), gives a thoughtful performance as Lou. She, too, has lost much in her young life, and leaving Ruben is clearly heartbreaking for her. The strongest supporting role performance comes from Paul Raci playing Joe. Wisdom and patience emanate from the character, and the film makes it clear that the state of grace he finds himself in was hard-won.

The title of the film has a double meaning, the sound of metal being the music Ruben played and the eventual manner in which he will “hear” again. Marder has crafted an incredible debut built around loss and fear that never wallows or becomes sentimental. Instead, Ruben’s story is one of a greater realization of self that also challenges the audience’s assumptions about what it is to lose a part of what you have always known but to find a way to go forward into a different but not impossible future.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video