An intriguing narrative on the experience of becoming deaf through a fantastic lead performance from Riz Ahmed and incredible sound design, writer/director Darius Marder crafts one of the best debuts of 2020.
The film chronicles the experience of Ruben (Ahmed), a punk-metal drummer as he suddenly becomes deaf on tour with his girlfriend/bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). The second his hearing goes and the sound is drained from the film, there’s a lump in your throat that instantly materialises through the unnerving silence. Marder really makes the viewer feel Ruben’s experience on two fronts – in terms of narrative and on a technical level. The use of muffled dialogue and high-pitch ringing really quickly places you in Ruben’s head and makes you uneasy, even before considering the real-life struggles he’s going to have to go through.
These thoughts become reality as Ruben faces common communication hurdles that heavily impact him. Things like talking to a pharmacist or speaking with Lou about their next steps suddenly become difficult and it’s easy to feel the frustration build and his sense of control start to slip away. There’s a moment where a nurse calls for him which he doesn’t hear which legitimately broke my heart and it really makes you realise how few accommodations there are for the deaf community in day to day life. All of this instantly establishes a sense of care for him from the audience that makes you connect to all the rage, frustration and fear that he has.
Where the film really shines is in establishing Ruben and Lou’s relationship and their past struggles. The script from Darius Marder, Abraham Marder and Derek Cianfrance is flawless and easily conveys how important the characters are to each other and how Ruben becoming deaf puts a new kind of strain on their relationship. These feelings are elevated even more with the incredible chemistry from Ahmed and Cooke that shows how deeply, madly in love these two are.
With Ruben being initially unable to afford a cochlear implant, his only option is to learn how to accept and live without hearing through a deaf community run by Jon (Paul Raci) – who only allows deaf people to live at the facility. Thus, Ruben and Lou are forced to separate and he must learn how to live with being deaf without her. Joe’s belief within the community is that being deaf isn’t something that needs to be fixed and everyone in the community comes together to help one another grow. All of this can be felt through Ruben’s experience in the community as Joe has him take classes to learn American Sign Language (ASL), work with deaf children, and even just sit in a room so that he can learn to accept the silence.
Ahmed offers a type of role that’s rarely seen in cinema, and the level of physical commitment really makes his performance. Every ounce of pain and frustration on his face can be felt and when he arrives to Joe’s community, it’s plain to see how he desperately yearns for normalcy again. While it’s interesting to see a modern depiction of being deaf, the most effective element of Sound of Metal is watching Ahmed learning physical sign language. I particularly enjoyed how Marder shows Ruben’s learning curve through subtitles; the film does not initially use subtitles for ASL, but starts using them as he begins to get the hang of it, a simple yet effective touch that really pulls you deeper into the film. Ahmed gives the definition of an “Oscar-worthy” performance and a career-best that only gets better when the film moves into its final act.
While Sound of Metal seems like a story primarily meant to offer an insight into the deaf community, there’s also an element of addiction that cuts very deep. Rather than just being about drugs, the type of addiction that Ruben has to deal with is much more personal and connected to his relationship with Lou and the lifestyle they’ve been living. Being frustrated with how his life is changing, Ruben is forced to make tough decisions that have drastic consequences. Ultimately, the film perfectly encapsulates Joe’s belief of not viewing deafness as a handicap and pushes through a cathartic worldview that Ruben now has new obstacles and achievements to aim for. The tough conversations he has with both Joe and Lou are incredibly moving and there’s something very poetic about the ending that makes the viewer reflect on their own personal relationships.
Sound of Metal is easily one of the most impactful and eye-opening films of year, as Marder not only delivers a genuine depiction of the deaf experience through Ahmed’s incredible performance, but also tells a deeply personal story of overcoming addiction.
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