Released 2020. Director: Darius Marder
SHRILL, PIERCING, RINGING AND ECHOEY, A WALL OF NOISE blocks out everything else as voices become muted and distant. This is the beginning of hearing loss for Ruben Stone and Sound of Metal wants to put us in his head to experience what it’s like.
As the movie starts, the camera locks in on a drummer furiously thrashing away in a punk metal band amidst screaming audience. Bare-chested, tattooed, peroxide hair – we don’t just see him but more importantly, we ‘hear’ him in his natural environment. With his girlfriend Lou on vocal and guitar, the duo have tours booked and an album in the works. Life looks great for Ruben until suddenly he finds it almost impossible to hear anything. Out of the blue, no warning, Ruben is falling deaf. His world begins to shut down, along with his identity and his sense of self-worth. How does an ambitious musician approaching his prime deal with the possibility that a main part of his life is now over?
Few movies use sound as its principal tool to absorb your attention as Sound of Metal does. In telling a story about the sense of hearing, director Darius Marder creates a cocoon for us to experience the muffled, distorted, diminishing aural sensation. In the early stages it’s like struggling to hear through a very blocked ear, or underwater. From the eardrum-shredding metal rock to the sharp, high-pitched, tin-can acoustics through assisted hearing and the stretches of hush in between, Sound of Metal utilises the effects of sound to create an immersive environment. The sound design is innovative and remarkable.
At the centre of this alternately cacophonous and silent ride is Riz Ahmed’s transfixing performance. Ruben is an ex-addict on a path to a new future when life deals a cruel blow and he’s in danger of self-destruction. Ahmed learned how to play the drum and do sign language, lending authenticity to his character, but it is his whole arsenal of body language that amplifies the abrupt and literally deafening fear crawling over him. He’s like a man who has an itch but not allowed to scratch, an agitation just beyond his reach. Even when he’s calm he has the eyes of an animal caught in danger.
Ruben’s journey through his frustration, rehabilitation and epiphany is engrossing in its straightforward manner and lack of dramatic manipulation.
After a rocky start, Ruben’s stay at a commune for the deaf under the guidance of his counsellor Joe (Paul Raci in a firm, sympathetic, Messianic role) settles into a rhythm of introspection and education. While Ruben makes an effort to learn and adjust, behind Joe’s back he’s planning for a way out. He sells his RV and audio equipment to scrape together the prohibitive costs for a cochlear implant.
Joe’s stand on being deaf is to accept and embrace it. It is not a disability that needs fixing. Ruben’s refusal to accept what’s become of him is understandable. It’s not a simple case of denial but a need for his life to return to a semblance of normality, to a degree that would allow him to rekindle his passion and continue his career. So when the implant does not result in perfect hearing, or even near good enough, Ruben’s hope is shattered.
Sound of Metal does not pretend hearing loss is something one could get over or conquer by proffering a happy ending. It does not disguise the fact that this is a devastating condition.
An athlete losing a limb, a painter going blind, a musician going deaf – not the same but all requiring enormous adjustment and incredible strength of acceptance. For Ruben, his life has moved on to the next chapter. Ruben’s reunion with Lou makes this point clear. Now living in Paris, Lou has changed so much she’s almost unrecognisable from the rock guitarist with a gypsy lifestyle that Ruben remembers. The distance between Ruben and his old life is beyond catching up and there’s no use for Ruben to keep looking back.
The honesty in Sound of Metal is the clear-eyed, cold and sobering refusal to give Ruben a happy ending, even if Ruben fights to the end. Life has taken a bitter turn, but it need not remain a tragedy as Ruben learns to allow himself to find acceptance, peace and stillness amidst the turbulence. The message is brutal, but its delivery is extraordinarily serene, loud and clear.
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