Opening on a punk-heavy-metal experimental concert, sound becomes the main focus––and it is deafening. The camera focuses on a shadowy and sweaty Ruben, played by Riz Ahmed, the drummer for this experimental punk duo. He is fully immersed in the sound. The base rhythm sends vibrations to the viewer, and the screaming vocals stun them. With an innovative use of sound to simulate hearing loss, complex characters that show diversity in the deaf community, and an overcoming-addiction narrative, Sound of Metal is a simultaneously gut-wrenching and heartwarming masterclass film that shows immense respect for the community it represents. It is no wonder Sound of Metal is nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.
Ruben is a tortured man with a past that still haunts him—he never knew his father and he is also a recovering heroin addict. Lou, who is both his girlfriend and the other half of the music duo, is also a complicated individual with traumas of her own. Together, they live a free and adventurous life on the road, their lives and their possessions packed into an RV they drive around the country, performing their music. Their emotionally raw and charming relationship is best exemplified in an incredibly beautiful and tender scene where they dance to a 50s song on vinyl while metaphorically and physically close in their RV’s living space. It is the life dreamed of by many young, eccentric music lovers.
However, the dream life is abruptly halted by an unexpected turn of events: Ruben begins to lose his hearing. Suddenly, his world of intense percussion starts to fade. The sound mixing and editing of the movie are incredible; the film seamlessly moves between the undoctored sounds of the world and the muted atmosphere that Ruben experiences. This sound editing allows the viewer to become fully immersed in Ruben and his character because they experience the world as he does.
Sound of Metal admirably demonstrates the complexity of deafness interwoven with other aspects of one’s life. Ruben is deaf, but he is also a recovering addict. When he loses his hearing, the way he processes the loss shows his addictive tendencies. Ruben is uniquely preoccupied with improvement in a way that comes across as manic. He has to get up early to work out, and he can’t help but fix a roof when he sees it is broken. When he is tasked with just sitting still, it is an arduous undertaking for him. This need to perpetually fix “broken” things is applied to his recent deafness when Reuben goes to extreme lengths to get a cochlear implant, which he presumes will be the magical “fix” for his deafness. He is forced to reckon with this decision in an ending that leaves audiences equally devastated and relieved.
In an attempt to help him navigate this new world, Lou forces him to go to a house for deaf, recovering addicts. Here, Ruben is confronted with a deaf world he wishes he wasn’t a part of. Paul Raci gives one of the most moving performances of the movie, playing Reuben’s addiction counselor at the deaf house. Raci imbued his character with plenty of pieces of his own personal history as the son of deaf parents, a recovering addict, and a Vietnam veteran, like his character. Through his pained yet compassionate facial expressions and body language, Raci performs the role of his career with grace and respect for his character.
The director, Darius Marder, also includes deaf actors in this chapter of the film, creating an authentic representation of the deaf community that has been missing in Hollywood. There is an accurate depiction of signing and ASL teaching techniques that helps deaf people feel seen on screen. However, with all the positive representation and diversity, there are also critiques of the way the deaf community is represented. There are some deaf viewers who believe Ruben should have been cast with a deaf actor. Furthermore, there is a feeling among the deaf community that the portrayal of cochlear implants is outdated. In the deaf community today, there is more acceptance of cochlear implants rather than viewing them as a betrayal of the deaf community, as Sound of Metal does. Some deaf viewers argue the film should have explored more modern struggles of the deaf community.
However, Sound of Metal has been praised for accurately showing the diversity in the deaf community; Ruben’s closest friend in the deaf house is Jenn, a Black, queer, deaf woman. Their relationship serves as the cornerstone for Ruben’s struggles with integrating into the deaf community. It’s best embodied in the comedic and loving moment between the two friends where Ruben draws a tattoo for Jen of a naked woman—solidifying a friendship that transcends many different identities. It moves away from representations of deaf people as pristine and predominately white, reflecting the more complex and diverse reality of deaf people throughout the world.
Sound of Metal has all the aspects of a riveting drama, while also meaningfully depicting the real and authentic stories of deaf people, addicts, and their less discussed intersectionality. Every sound and shot is meticulously produced to put the viewer in Reuben’s shoes, leaving hearing viewers struck by how much they take hearing for granted. The film flawlessly generates intense feelings of instability and empathy that are sure to make any viewer cry at the sound of silence.
Sound of Metal can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Rating: I N D Y
Audrey Ledford is a freshman in the SFS studying International Politics.