One of the things I like best about Darius Marder’s feature directing debut Sound of Metal is how unsentimental it is. The temptation is certainly there as you watch its main character struggle to overcome a massive physical change that impacts his entire life. But to frame the film that way would be to cite deafness as a disability and that those who suffer from it are somehow broken and need fixing. Instead, Marder rejects that assumption and chooses to take a broader look at life, avoiding platitudes and mawkish sentiment for a profound look at the fleeting and transitory nature of life. Anchored by a raw, vulnerable performance from Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal is deeply empathetic towards the deaf as it tells a universal story of dealing with change.
Ruben Stone (Ahmed) and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in a heavy metal band starting their American tour when Ruben’s hearing starts to go. Ruben, a recovering addict who has been sober ever since he met Lou four years ago, discovers that, for reasons either relating to his profession or an autoimmune disease, he will lose his hearing. His sponsor puts him touch with Joe (Paul Raci) who runs a community for the deaf and can also provide Ruben with the support he needs so he doesn’t slip back into addiction. However, the trade-off is he needs to devote himself to program completely, which means staying away from Lou for a while. Lou reluctantly goes back home while Ruben tries to live without his hearing, but is drawn to the allure of his old life touring with Lou.
Sound of Metal is the first film I’ve ever seen where closed captioning functions as an artistic choice. To better put you in the mindset of Ruben and those in the deaf community, Marder presents the film as a deaf person would see it. It’s not just subtitles, but also descriptions of the audio. And yet the way the film uses sound is incredible, not simply cutting it out, but rather muffling it, distorting it, cutting between the way Ruben experiences his hearing loss and an objective, third-person perspective of the audio. Rather than directly telling the audience, “This is what it would be like to lose your hearing,” cutting back and forth between Ruben’s perspective and the objective soundscape conveys the pull of Ruben’s old life and his reluctance to accept his new one with hearing loss.
Marder is also very careful to stress that deaf people do not have a disability (Joe says as much late in the film). Ruben’s attraction to his old life isn’t just damaging because of his inability to go back, but because he believes that if he can just pay for some expensive cochlear implants they will solve all his problems. Rather than resigning the film to this point of view of, “Why don’t the deaf just get implants?” Sound of Metal combats it, offering a rich perspective on the life of deaf people. Marder doesn’t define these people solely by their hearing loss, and simply shows them as people with all the strengths and weaknesses that entails. Ruben is far from the only adult in the community who’s a recovering addict and who also needs to learn sign language. Rather than using deafness to completely define someone, Marder tries to scribble in as much as he can about the people in the community to show that they are not defined by their lack of hearing.
Ruben wrestles with accepting his hearing loss as part of his identity because he wants his old life back. He wants to be a drummer touring with Lou, and now his life is someone who can’t hear music (or at least hear it in the way he used to) and the woman he loves is in another country. And that’s not a story about deafness. That’s a story about life. We go about our lives in one direction and then one day everything changes. The easy storytelling route would be about a character overcoming adversity. Sound of Metal goes for a more complex journey about the allure of the past and wanting to return to “normalcy” without recognizing that we have to adapt to a new normal. Marder recognizes that’s easier said than done, and wraps his movie in Ruben struggling with how his life has changed.
I’ve been a Riz Ahmed fan since Four Lions, and he’s absolutely incredible here. Ruben isn’t some saintly figure laid low by cruel fortune. There’s a lot of rage and volatility wrapped up in his personality. He’s not violent and he’s not cruel, but he’s short-tempered and Ahmed lets us into his anger as humanizing rather than polarizing. We never doubt his love for Lou, but we can also sympathize with her that perhaps leaving him for a while so he can learn to be deaf is what’s best for him. Ahmed understands that we don’t necessarily need to “like” Ruben, and we certainly don’t need to see him as victim of circumstance. Instead, we’re drawn into his inner conflict of yearning for a life that was and struggling to accept life as it is.
Sound of Metal seems like it starts from a typical place where someone who relies on a physical ability loses that ability, but the film’s depth and nuance goes far beyond its beginning. Through the brilliant use of sound, Marder’s sharp direction, and Ahmed’s magnificent performance, Sound of Metal manages to ask much larger and profound questions than “How do we adapt?” The film recognizes that while Ruben was addicted to drugs, the addiction he struggles with after losing his hearing is an addiction to a life that’s been lost. Sound of Metal recognizes not only that allure, but also the beauty and pain of acceptance.