Sound of Metal – A unique and impressive slice of modern cinema

Sound of Metal is playing in UK cinemas from 17th May and on Amazon Prime Video from 12th April

How do we rate the power of a film? And does that power last beyond its end credits? The morning after I viewed Sound of Metal, I found myself continuing to think about the movie. On my morning walk, I noticed every sound around me, from the birds singing in the trees to the gravel crunching under my feet and the wind whistling past my ears. For those of us who have good hearing, these sounds are everyday occurrences. We take them for granted, hardly noticing them in the world around us. Even as I type this review, the pitter-patter of the keyboard is a given to me. My brain only registering the sound if I make an effort to single it out and hear it.

But, do we care for this beautiful wonder of nature? Do we cherish and think about the joy of sound?. The truth is those of us with good hearing take it for granted in our daily lives. We never consider that it may someday diminish or disappear. We place ourselves in situations daily where we push this gift to its limits—for example, earphones set at a high level, drills and mechanical equipment or loud concerts. Even our local cinema has become a challenge to our ears as surround sound continues to get louder. For musicians, this risk is multiplied, many suffering hearing loss from years of live gigs and touring. And despite the importance of earplugs in protecting their hearing, many do not use them during their youth. The sense of invincibility wrapped in our younger years, never considering any potential damage.

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It is here where Sound of Metal finds a unique voice, its ability to make us think about sound, hearing and loss outstanding. The film cleverly placing us in a world where sound vanishes while surrounding this with the emotional impact of loss. But, beyond this, Sound of Metal also has a lot to say on the public view of deafness. In turn, raising essential and challenging discussions about the labelling of disabilities.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) furiously pounds the drums as the stage lighting bathes his bare torso in heat. The beat becoming a vent for his inner turmoil and anger as his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) plays the guitar and screams the vocals. The heavy metal crowd in front of them bouncing as they are caught in the band’s trap. The world disappearing around them in heat, light, sweat and sound. The morning after the gig, Ruben rises early in the RV he and Lou call home, preparing a vegan breakfast as Lou lays sleeping. Every sound is elevated, from the drip of the percolated coffee to the cutting of food and music playing softly in the background. But, for Ruban, this will be the last breakfast he enjoys with these sounds surrounding him.

The next day Ruben wakes with a feeling of blockage in both ears as his voice echoes in his head. His belief in this being a mere temporary loss of hearing becoming something far more catastrophic. The blockage only getting worse as Ruben realises he can no longer hear anything but the deep bass of the world around him. His whole lives purpose called into question as he visits a local doctor to be told his hearing is gone, never to return. At this point, Ruban’s many years of sobriety with Lou become a risk the couple cannot avoid. Ruben’s whole world collapsing in an instant as his life and personal identity are challenged like never before.

Worried about his possible return to drugs as a support tool, Ruben approaches a centre for recovering addicts who are deaf. There he finds Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic who runs the facility. But, Joe’s views on hearing loss could not be more different to Ruben’s, as he declares that Ruben must learn to be deaf. In turn, embracing a new world and leaving the past. And as Ruben settles into the new community, leaving Lou behind, he and Lou must decide on the roads they need to take individually. The past now firmly in the rearview mirror.

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Director Darius Marder’s subtle yet striking exploration of hearing loss never allows for simplistic answers in the journey Ruben takes. And while occasionally losing its way in the narrative, the sheer brilliance of the film’s design ensures viewers remain engaged throughout. Much of this brilliance comes from the innovative use of sound design and visuals. For example, the fluctuating use of sound in representing Ruben’s inner world. And the use of subtitles and audio description from start to finish. But, without Riz Ahmed’s performance, these innovations alone would not hold Sound of Metal together. Here, Riz Ahmed captures the fear and apprehension of Ruben’s journey and the grief of his loss. His performance surrounded by an almost childlike rediscovery as he learns to embrace the world afresh while still longing for a miracle cure that can take him back to his old life.

Meanwhile, discussions of deafness and disability find a fascinating voice in Joe’s hands and the retreat he has created. Here, Joe passionately believes in the individual embracing hearing loss in creating a new life. However, this also comes with a level of religious fervour that rejects any medical interventions. Joe passionately believes deafness is not a disability, while Ruben continues to question his new life, seeking new and innovative medical treatments. A conclusion to this debate is not forthcoming in Marder’s narrative by choice. However, what is clear is the film’s belief that deafness is not a disability. Instead, it is a lived experience; each person finding their unique path. Neither Joe nor Rubens beliefs right or wrong in the films final delicate scenes.

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The result is a delicate, fascinating and engaging drama held aloft by its technical brilliance and performances. And while some may find the unresolved nature of the discussions raised problematic, the fact that these discussions are present is a huge step forward in debates on deafness, disability and hearing loss. Here, Darius Marder’s documentary background sits firmly at the heart of proceedings. His accomplished jump into feature-length drama holding realism and social depth. And when this is coupled with Riz Ahmed’s assured performance, Sound of Metal becomes a truly unique and impressive slice of modern cinema.

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