Sound of Metal movie review: Riz Ahmed silences inner demons in exceptional drama about deafness
Movies about disabled people are typically nothing more than 'triumph of spirit over body' stories with intrinsic catharsis for able-bodied audiences. Sound of Metal avoids that with an immersive screenplay and impressive sound design.
castRiz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
If you think of film as only a visual medium, hit the mute button and you'll realise just how sound alters your perception. When you hear the bumping noises coming from the attic in The Exorcist, or the boulder rolling in Raiders of the Lost Ark, sound informs the narrative or evokes the mood before the visuals can.
Even the absence of sound can command our attention. Imagine an explosion, like the one in Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach landing or There Will Be Blood's oil well blowout. The strategic silence, oftentimes accompanied by an effect that simulates the ringing in the ears, heightens the intensity of the explosion. The silence, brief as it may be, is unsettling in a way that mirrors the disorientation one might feel in its aftermath.
Sound can not only energise the visuals of a film, but be a storytelling tool in itself. In Sound of Metal, writer-director Darius Marder reflects on loss and acceptance through the story of a drummer losing his hearing. Until four years ago, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) relied on heroin to numb all his pain. Now, he's found peaceful refuge in music, as a drummer to his vocalist-girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) in their two-piece band. We first meet them at a gig, which serves as an apt introduction to all their internalised rage. The intimate staging of Ahmed and Cooke side by side also reveals a mutual vulnerability.
When Ruben suddenly loses his hearing, Lou worries he may relapse and return to his self-destructive ways. So, on his sponsor's advice, she leaves him in the care of a deaf community led by a Vietnam War vet named Joe (Paul Raci). At first, he struggles to come to terms with his hearing loss, fearing he may lose Lou and his livelihood with it. So, he is reluctant to join in during the group sessions. A dinner scene foregrounds his feeling of alienation, unable to communicate with anyone. That is until he connects with a deaf kid in a beautifully staged playground scene. The kid starts tapping on a metal slide, and when Ruben feels the vibration, he can't help but smile. He finds some hope again.
It motivates him to learn sign language, and learn how to destroy his inner demons without destroying himself. Initially, all Ruben can think of is how to regain his hearing i.e. raise money to get cochlear implants. Joe, however, teaches him to accept his disability and live with it, rather than fight it. Only in doing so can he learn to see it as liberating than restraining.
Adjusting to a new life with any disability can be a difficult transition. In an early montage, Ruben wakes up early, makes a smoothie for himself, works out, and listens to the blues. The following day, a similar sequence sees him perform the same routine, but with his hearing impaired. We sense his mounting frustration over not being able to hear the water falling from the shower, the whirring of the blender and the coffee pot bubbling. Marder employs a sound design with a painstaking ear to shifts in perspective between that of the deaf drummer and the able-bodied third person.
Sound design is an often overlooked aspect of filmmaking. It rarely registers consciously because it doesn't call attention to itself. Here, it is most effective when it does. Nicolas Becker, who's worked on films like Arrival and Gravity, plunges the audience into a simulation of a deaf person's auditory perception. Ruben's hearing loss begins before a routine sound check. It sounds like the muffled noises you hear when you're flying, or when you're underwater. With each minute, the confusion implodes in dread over the realisation this may not be a passing episode.
Deafness doesn't mean absolute silence of course. The depth and hi-fi quality of sounds give way to tinnitus buzzes and distortions. When the audio is cut completely the first time, you're caught off guard just like Ruben. This adds to his anguish and sense of loss. We hear through his ears as the sound is withdrawn periodically to shroud us in his everyday reality. It transports us outside of our own experience. Sound even adds to the anxious energy of Ahmed, who positions us firmly in Ruben's point of view. In moments of atypical stillness, his eyes offer glimpses into his complex inner world. It conveys his pain and despair as the world around him moves on.
Movies about disabled people are typically nothing more than "triumph of spirit over body" stories with intrinsic catharsis for able-bodied audiences. At worst, they other disabled people by looking at them as objects of pity. More often than not, portraying disability is nothing but a splashy showcase to woo the Oscar voters. Sound of Metal avoids all these through an authentic story and an immersive sound design that brings the marginalised experience of hearing impaired to the centre.
Even when it navigates familiar beats of addiction and disability stories, it never falls off the edge into the pit of Hollywood melodrama and messaging. In a week with high-profile releases like Tenet and Mank, Sound of Metal might not drum up the same amount of attention. But it's the kind of indie drama that will linger because it's a quiet joy — almost self-consciously so — anchored by one of the year's most remarkable lead performances.
Sound of Metal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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Riz Ahmed, who won the award for Sound of Metal, quoted "tremendous actor" Irrfan Khan while accepting his prize.