The cinema has a long, storied history of introducing us to experiences we might never otherwise understand. Sound of Metal, a film about the experience of losing your sense of sound, is a brilliant, immaculate addition to this history.
Starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben, Darian Marder’s stunning debut is a fascinating and deeply sympathetic look at the lives of the deaf and hard of hearing, utilizing many unique technical and audiological tricks to immerse the viewers in Ruben’s plight.
Sound of Metal begins with a musical performance by Ruben and his girlfriend/bandmate, Lou. Already we can tell that something isn’t right as the performance sounds incredibly off, as though it’s being heard from the end of a pipe, in an alley outside. This is our first indication of Ruben’s hearing loss but it’s clearly something that’s been a long time coming.
Ruben is also an addict. With 4 years clean and a rebuilt life, holding all of this in is slowly eroding him from the inside out. When the levee finally breaks, and Ruben loses almost all of his hearing, he must face up to his new reality or risk sliding back into his destructive past.
Unfortunately, this means separating from his girlfriend while he spends time in a deaf community. His assignment, as provided by his new mentor, Joe, is to “learn how to be deaf”. He’s also encouraged to sit in the stillness of simply being, to explore his inner self, and to write down his thoughts.
This section of the film is arguably its strongest point. Beginning with Ruben feeling like an outsider (as the only one there who can’t read lips or do sign language), Sound of Metal showcases how he is out of sorts even among his own kind. Soon, however, this perspective is flipped as everyone, including Ruben begins, speaking solely in sign language.
It’s a brilliant trick on the audience. Now we watch in silence as these people communicate in their own way, a way we don’t understand. We read mere subtitles as they have evocative, intimate conversations among themselves. It shows perfectly how Ruben has now become a part of their community, but we have not. Now we’re the ones on the outside.
Of course, co-writer and director Darius Marder’s many technical tricks can only do so much of the heavy lifting in terms of making this journey work. Luckily he’s helped along immensely by a very talented cast. Riz Ahmed has been dropping jaws since The Night Of but he really goes deep here, playing Ruben as a complex and troubled person, a man of many layers. He does a lot of work with just his facial expressions, particularly as he’s first accepting his new way of life.
Olivia Cooke is similarly inclined, as Lou, to use her face to emote for much of her inner turmoil. As she experiences this change with (and without) him, her eyes tell us dozens of times how impossible it is for her to choose between the tour she’s signed up for and her love for Ruben.
Sound of Metal is one of the year’s finest films…
The cast is filled out with touching, endearing performances from Paul Raci, Mathieu Almaric, and Lauren Ridloff. Raci, in particular, is great as the no-nonsense Joe who introduces Ruben to a new way of life, one where being deaf isn’t a disability but simply a different way of living.
Again, the nuance of this depiction of deafness is an exceptional trump card for Sound of Metal. Though we initially sympathize with Ruben, as he becomes more immersed in his new life we begin to almost envy his sense of purpose and the “stillness” that he has begun to find.
Unfortunately, Ruben remains torn, hoping that an expensive set of implants can restore his hearing and allow him to continue performing as a musician. As he sacrifices much to finally have a chance at hearing again, the results are much different from what he expects. Again, the many audiological tricks in Sound of Metal shine brilliantly here, showing us how the world sounds to those without hearing loss, then cutting back to the way Ruben now experiences sound.
A flourish of party conversation becomes a smattering buzz of clinks, off-putting vocal tics and confusing cross talk. An emotional musical performance loses all of its pulses as it comes through like it’s being heard from a forest a mile away. A church bell ringing becomes unbearably loud and invasive as it tolls off the midday.
Like his first film, Sound of Metal shows that Marder is a curious and careful filmmaker and, along with his brother/co-writer, Abraham, will be someone worth watching closely as his future projects develop. Daniël Bouquet’s cinematography work is also aces here, leaning into the actor’s emotive expressions for long lingering shots, and occasionally mixing in some real scenic beauty as well.
All in all, Sound of Metal is one of the year’s finest films and a striking indie effort. With fantastic performances, a unique perspective, and the type of journey that has rarely been depicted on screen, this is a must-see for anyone who’s ever wondered what it might be like to lose their hearing or to be forced to adapt to a new way of life. Don’t miss this one, it’ll change the way you see (and hear) the world.