Darius Marder’s debut feature Sound of Metal begins with, well, just that: the sound of a metal guitar, reverberating eerily over a black screen.
Eventually we see the bare torso of a man, framed by his drum kit with stage lights beating down on his bowed head. Nameless and placeless, we are presented only with the man and his drums, everything else melts into the void. This opening feels like a psychological portrait of a man just barely holding it together, and over the runtime of Sound of Metal, we see this pent-up energy rise to the surface.
The drummer is Ruben (Riz Ahmed), one half of a touring punk-metal duo with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), the band’s vocalist. They lead a nomadic lifestyle, living out of their van and driving from gig to gig. Four years clean from heroin, Ruben has established a healthy lifestyle, one based in routine: he wakes up early, exercises and makes fresh vegetable smoothies. However, despite his now clean lifestyle the shadow of addiction still hangs over Ruben. We get the sense that his routine is designed to fill the silence between gigs, and sure enough when Ruben’s hearing suddenly deteriorates, he quickly spirals into a desperate tailspin of fear, anger and denial. It becomes clear that Ruben’s roaming existence might be bourn less from a love for freedom, and more from a compulsion to run.
It is at this moment that the blaring noise of Sound of Metal’s opening gives way to deafening silence. Fearing that Ruben might relapse, Lou organises for him to spend time in a sober Deaf community, run by recovered alcoholic and Vietnam war vet Joe (Paul Raci). During his stay Ruben will have to learn to confront himself—aside from the use of a communal computer, he is cut off from the outside world. Everyone in this community is assigned tasks throughout their stay, and upon arriving Joe sets Ruben a simple one: “learn how to be deaf”. What follows is an incredibly visceral exploration of character, addiction and the ways that people can hide from themselves.
The film has been nominated for its outstanding sound design at this year’s Oscars, and rightly so as that sound design is instrumental in sharing Ruben’s subjective experience. The film crafts a sonorous narrative that uses the shifts between ‘full hearing’ and Ruben’s deafened hearing to play with our assumptions, and which reveals listening to be less about sound and more a state of mind. At dinner in the Deaf community, we hear the world as Ruben does: subdued sounds make the scene feel lonely and isolated. Not yet having learned to sign, Ruben is withdrawn and uncommunicative, avoiding eye contact with others around the table. What Ruben is unaware of is the rambunctious conversing taking place around him, with the rest of the table signing enthusiastically. The film highlights this as a stimulating and joyful expression; when it switches to full sound, we can hear the thumping of the table as everyone communicates. In this way the film not only shows us how Ruben closes himself off from the community, failing to listen, but by undoing our assumptions it reveals what the wider world of hearing people are deaf to.
Ahmed deserves huge credit for the way he is able to draw this out. His performance has received a string of well-deserved Best Actor nominations at the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTA’s. As Reuben, he is utterly compelling, and brings so much truth and nuance to a character who has a hard time expressing his inner mind, even to himself. Below layers of anger and self-doubt, Ahmed simmers with nervous energy. Olivia Cooke also shines in her performance as Lou, and her chemistry with Ahmed really drives home Ruben and Lou’s co-dependency.
Alongside these two, Paul Raci (also nominated for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar) is fantastic as Joe. Raci himself is hearing but grew up a part of the Deaf community as the son of two deaf parents. Joining him is a warm and passionate cast made up of members of the Deaf community, who give a strong identity to the film but also heighten its core message: what they have is difference, not disability. Ahmed has spoken time and time again about his personal growth during the making of the film, saying that “the deaf community taught me what listening means: it means you listen with your whole body, with your attention, your energy.” Rather than telling the story of a character losing the ability to hear, Sound of Metal explores gaining the ability to listen.
Sound of Metal is a masterful study in character, executed with technical brilliance; its innovative sound design and stellar performances are particular highlights. This film is a much needed breakthrough for representation of the Deaf community, and fully deserves the six Oscar nominations it has received this year.
Sound of Metal will be released in UK cinemas from 17th May, with Irish cinemas following at a later date. The film will be available on Amazon Prime Video from 12th April.
Words by Jackie du Bled
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