SOUND OF METAL (2019)
A heavy-metal drummer's life is turned upside down when he begins to lose his hearing.
There’s a debate to be had about whether deafness and hearing-impairment should be considered disabilities. Those within the deaf community would argue that deafness is a culture rather than a disability, while others believe having a hearing-impairment imposes many disadvantages. As audiences recognise the misrepresentations of gender, race, and sexuality, Hollywood’s slowly acknowledging the lack of representation of the deaf community. While deaf characters have featured in Children of a Lesser God (1986), Wonderstruck (2017), and The Quiet Place (2018), the culture continues to be misrepresented. Darius Marder’s feature-length debut tackles the subject head-on, by adapting Derek Cianfrance’s (The Blue Valentine) unreleased documentary Metalhead, making Sound of Metal a respectful representation of the deaf community.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is the drummer and one-half of a heavy metal duo with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Together they live in an RV while traveling across the US playing small venues. Then, following an adrenaline-fuelled gig, Ruben begins to experience a sudden loss of hearing, and a panicked visit to the doctor reveals that, if he continues his lifestyle, he will lose his hearing completely. Lou learns of her boyfriend’s condition and convinces him to visit a rural community for deaf people and recovering addicts. And, once there, under the guidance of Joe (Paul Rici), Ruben must learn to accept and appreciate his new life. However, Ruben still believes that if he can save enough money for cochlear implants, he’ll be able to restore his previous life.
Following his breakthrough supporting role in Nightcrawler (2014), Riz Ahmed has consistently delivered incredible performances. Since appearing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and garnering critical acclaim for HBO’s The Night Of (2016) miniseries, the English actor’s spent the past decade proving his magnetic naturalism. Undoubtedly, Sound of Metal is anchored by the actor’s phenomenal performance as the former addict, Ruben. Exploding onscreen passionately playing the drums during a live show, Ahmed broods with intensity and emotional vulnerability. His ability to draw the audience into his inner conflict through his expressive face and bodily posture is remarkable. As his hearing deteriorates and voices become distorted, his eyes act as a transparent window into his character’s soul. Whether it’s the widening of his pupils as he frantically questions the doctor about cochlear implants, or his longing gaze towards Lou as she sings, Ahmed embodies every inch of Ruben’s pain, anguish, and desperation. There’s not a single scene or emotional beat that feels forced either. The reality of becoming part of the deaf community was fully embraced by Ahmed, who spent several months crafting his character. He even learned the drums, became conversationally proficient in American Sign Language (ASL), and wore audio-blockers during his scenes. His courage and commitment to the role is admirable and there’s no doubt he deserves his Academy Award nomination.
The supporting cast deliver equally immersive and realistic performances. Olivia Cooke (Thoroughbreds) shines as Ruben’s girlfriend, Lou. The English actress shares an incredibly intense but touching chemistry with her counterpart. Delicately displaying the difficulties of mental health, the two complement each other’s performances perfectly; communicating the subtextual dangers of addiction and codependency. Lou lost her mother to suicide and has rows of self-inflicted scars on her inner arms, while Ruben’s a former addict with the words “please kill me” tattooed across his chest. They both represent a dangerous addiction but have found security in one another.
Additionally, the use of deaf, hard of hearing, and CODA (Children of Deaf Actors) are essential to the authenticity of this story. Paul Raci (Baskets) is exceptional as Joe, the owner of the rehabilitation facility, giving a nuanced performance serving as both Ruben’s mentor and moral compass. As a Vietnam veteran raised by deaf parents, he exudes his character’s wisdom and understanding. Although the commitment to casting deaf actors threatened the film’s existence, the choice to represent the deaf community authentically must be applauded.
Sound of Metal is a remarkably confident and bold debut from writer-director Darius Marder. Co-written with his brother Abraham Marder, the story’s partly inspired by their deaf grandmother. The careful approach to representing the experiences of the deaf community is admirable. Similar to Crip Camp (2020), Sound of Metal prioritises the importance of showing the hearing impaired as productive members of society. Marder emphasises that deaf people don’t have a disability and deafness isn’t something to be fixed or bemoaned. As Ruben obstinately believes his condition is a disability, he’s conflicted about whether he can continue his life. Joe explains that losing one’s hearing isn’t the end of a meaningful existence. During an incredibly heart-wrenching scene, Joe says “everyone here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap. All of these kids, all of us, need to be reminded of that every day.” As Ruben slowly integrates with the community he realises they’re energetic, intelligent, and joyful, not defined by their inability to hear. It’s an empowering message that highlights the condition isn’t an end, but the beginning of new possibilities.
Complimented by Daniel Bouquet’s (The Blue Wave) intimate cinematography, Sound of Metal is predominantly presented from a deaf person’s perspective. Marder deftly submerges the audience into the mindset of Ruben and the deaf community. As Ruben begins to lose his hearing, the sound is composed of low-frequency vibrations or removed completely. Conversations sound unintelligible, while environmental noises (chirping birds, wind chimes) become dampened. In contrast, Marder occasionally creates a third-person perspective allowing the audience to escape Ruben’s auditory condition.
In one particular scene, Ruben attends a school where the teacher (Lauren Ridloff) communicates entirely in ASL. The faint creaks of the chairs, hums of approval, and sounds of their hands signing dominate the soundscape. In another unforgettable scene, Ruben attends a party at Lou’s family home, where Lou and her father (Mathieu Almaric) sing a beautiful rendition of “Get Amour Me Tue” at the piano. We hear the song normally as the camera slowly drifts through the partygoers until it lands on Ruben. The sound then transitions to his auditory perspective and the sound dissolves into an echoic distortion. Altering the audio in various ways creates disorientation that’s simultaneously jarring and palpable. Marder creates an authentic sense of reality that many deaf people experience daily. While beautiful allowing the audience to appreciate the smallest sounds we take for granted.
Nicholas Becker’s (Gravity) masterful sound design deserves immense praise and rightfully received an Oscar nomination. His ability to capture the sound of silence and recreate sonic textures is breathtaking. Becker and Marder spent several years researching with audiologists, creating microphones that truly capture the experience of the deaf community. Instead of using high-pitched tones, the director employs a complexity of low-frequency vibrations to imitate loss of hearing. To achieve this goal, Becker experimented with microphones “100 times more sensitive than the human ear.” Ahmed was able to place the small microphones inside his mouth without them breaking. Naturally capturing the actor’s heartbeat, blood pressure, and muscle movement—including his eyelids closing. Perhaps the most impressive use of audio is the recreation of synthetic tones captured by cochleae implants. “It’s not like sound as you remember” the doctor explains, as Ruben recoils from the unnerving sound of metallic distortion. Becker’s carefully constructed sound design creates an encompassing sensory experience.
Ruben’s journey of sobriety and dealing with hearing loss evokes similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008). While Marder primarily focuses on the deaf community and the hearing impaired, there’s a resonance that speaks directly to the struggles humans encounter universally. Whether it’s grief, recovering from addiction, or coming to terms with a physical ailment, acceptance is something everybody experiences. As Ruben mourns the loss of his hearing, he reluctantly begins to process his troubling debilitation. While navigating through the five stages of grief, he desperately attempts to preserve what hearing he has left. Although Joe assigns him the task “learn how to be deaf”, he defiantly attempts to raise money for cochlear implants. However, the most difficult assignment arises when Ruben is challenged to sit silently in a room with his thoughts. Joe insists “there’s nothing that needs to be accomplished in this room”. Later arguing “it’s in the stillness that the Kingdom of God shows up and it’s those moments that stay with you”. This simple assignment points Ruben towards spiritual clarity and true healing. The stillness Joe speaks of isn’t silence, it’s the serenity where comfort and happiness are truly found within acceptance. It’s forgetting the past and simply living in the present while celebrating who you are.
Overall, Sound Of Metal is a beautiful film about recognising and normalising one’s differences. Although Darius Marder raises awareness for the deaf community, his sensitive message and emotional tale of self-discovery is universal. Although I never developed any hearing issues, I was diagnosed with a life-changing health condition at an early age. Ruben’s loss of identity, isolation, and new lifestyle resonated on a personal level. Ultimately, Marder highlights what it means to be alive and to appreciate the unsung beauty of silence. Anchored by Riz Ahmed’s incredible performance and heightened by the innovative sound design, Sound of Metal is a rewarding viewing experience.
USA | 2019 | 120 MINUTES | 2:39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE • FRENCH
director: Darius Marder.
writers: Darius Marder & Abraham Marder.
starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff & Mathieu Amalric.