Sound of Metal (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Imagine waking up one day and you must grapple with the reality that you can no longer take part in something that you love. How might you react? For Ruben (Riz Ahmed), he is advised by a medical doctor to minimize his exposure to loud noises because his hearing is deteriorating at a rapid rate. At the time of the auditory examination, results reveal that Ruben’s ears are functioning at 23-25% and the hearing that he’d lost is never coming back. This is a problem because he, along with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), is a musician, the drummer that goes with her vocals. Their metal band, Blackgammon, is currently on tour and they have an album on the way. Once given the news, not only is Ruben’s sense of self threatened but so is his way—their way—of making a living. Sacrifices will have to be made.
“Sound of Metal” is a story about acceptance. It presents a life-changing situation with a handful choices but no easy solutions. The screenplay by Darius Marder (who directs) and Abraham Marder is perceptive enough to avoid offering right or wrong answers thereby circumventing tired generalizations about being deaf and the deaf community. There is not a single instance in which we are made to feel sorry for those who are hard of hearing or those without the ability to hear.
They are shown to be people—men, women, children—simply living their lives; they just so happen to have their own language. Like people of hearing, they, too, have their own stories. I was particularly curious about Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam War veteran and the leader of a deaf community in which residents are recovering addicts. Joe is tough but fair, very selective and protective of those he chooses to become a part of their growing family. I wished Diane (Lauren Ridloff), an American Sign Language teacher, were fleshed out a bit more. I felt warmth from her radiant smile and welcoming eyes.
Focus is consistently on our protagonist, how he receives and processes information then moving on from there. Ruben is a man who believes that being deaf is a handicap and therefore something that can be fixed. It must. We don’t blame him for thinking this way because our society ingrains this belief in us. How can this be undone? Is there even a way? What I find intriguing is that the picture doesn’t provide clear-cut answers. How could it when in reality a person can be born deaf, that a person can lose hearing as a child, as a teenager, or as an adult; by biological means like an autoimmune disease or environmentally related such as drug abuse, warfare, or a high-impact accident? One size surely does not fit all. This story correct to be specific to Ruben and we observe him unblinkingly.
Ahmed is terrific as a drummer who is absolutely terrified of facing the cards he’s dealt with. He is fascinating to watch because on the one hand, we realize early on how music is so important to him, that being a musician is not just a profession or a way of making money but a state of being. We get a real sense that Ruben’s relationship with music is directly tethered to his sobriety (four years sober from drugs) alongside his love for Lou.
Once given the knowledge that Ruben is going deaf—permanently—Ahmed’s eyes is a deep well of fear, doubt, and desperation. I appreciated that there is one or two moments in which observant viewers can pinpoint the exact moment in which Ruben considers the possibility of other people perceiving him to be defective. Once upon a time, he found joy in drugs. Now, he finds joy in music. But since that is being taken away, where to next for this character? Joe suggests silence and stillness; Ruben recoils. We grow anxious for him. We examine his decisions very carefully even when he himself jumps into choices rather haphazardly. He prefers quick solutions. Just like he was addicted to achieving quick highs.
It is without question that “Sound of Metal” is a character study, a way for us hearing persons to gain an appreciation of how it might possibly be like to be deaf or go deaf. It is not perfect in regards to accuracy of the steps that must be taken should one choose to have cochlear implant, for example, nor is there such a clash between those who choose to embrace being deaf versus those who wish to regain some hearing via surgery. Despite this, the film is worth seeing because it tells a specific story and it places deep humanity above all.