Sound of Metal begins raucously: A moment of the loud, clashing beats as dummer Ruben smashes his passion into the drums. The metallic strum of a guitar and a wailing audience excited to be showered with a monstrous song. The camera edges closer to him, closing in on the sweat soaked air. There’s a ferociousness dripping down lead actor Riz Ahmed.
Ahmed keeps his eyes wide and unflinching, seemingly fixated on Olivia Cooke’s lead singer Lou as she growls into the microphone. His studious, obsessive starring solely at Lou starts as he is swept away in the thudding beats. Yet as we get closer, the music is replaced with ringing. Lou becomes muffled. The drums become vibrations. For the audience, the sound crumbles around him.
The moment of loud is gone.
Sound of Metal is an experience that submerges you from the very beginning.
Directed by Darius Marder, the film sees drummer Ruben one part of heavy metal band Blackgammon alongside his partner and lead singer, Lou, travelling across America in a beat-up cruiser. Ruben is hiding the fact that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating. Before one concert, Ruben wakes up and cannot hear a thing. Panicked that his physical health will affect his mental health, Lou and a sponsor check him into a safe house that specialises in those who are hard of hearing. However, Ruben struggles and tries to desperately to get his hearing back, but is his stubborn nature hurting those who support him?
Utilising the sound design is profound way to craft Ruben’s experience throughout the film. The audience in very quickly slipped into what Ruben hears and, by extension, what Ruben feels. From the tinnitus ringing to the dull mumbles of talking, and then the complete loss of sound, the now BAFTA-winning team really bring to light the difficulties faced by those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The accessibility is flipped and the film can be frustrating for those who are still with clear hearing.
Yet that in itself is beautiful for Marder and his team do not open up the community until Ruben is opening up to it. For example, until the drummer learns to sign, we are no longer privee to the subtitles that have been there since the beginning. We are locked out. In that moment, it is clear that the world needs to do better at making everything accessible.
Riz Ahmed is rightly being celebrated for his performance as Ruben here. In similar fashion to his performance in Mogul Mowgli – a young upcoming rapper who is diagnosed with cancer – Ahmed sinks into a character desperate for his world not to change as he clings onto hope with bloodied knuckles.
With help from the great script, Ahmed’s Ruben has a rage-filled desperation that struggles to adapt to this new silent world and the kindness that community has gifted him. Ahmed puts his guts into every character and Ruben is no different. As he battles his new circumstance and his troubles with addiction, the drummer’s anger is just a mask for how lost he now feels. In one moment, he is almost a child, left behind because of a seeming “defection” and his stubbornness. Ahmed’s big staring eyes fill with a raw emotion that beats like a heart through the film.
Olivia Cooke is brilliant as Lou, a woman with her own troubles trying to balance Ruben’s situation whilst making a sacrifice that could save them both. But it is Paul Raci’s supporting role as Joe, who runs the shelter that houses Ruben, that really supports Ahmed’s character. Raci, who was a hearing son born to deaf parents, brings experience and quality to Joe. He offers wisdom yet is not reduced to the role of wise man. Instead, Joe is afforded moments where he is angry, sloppy, or simply frustrated at Ruben. Joe’s blunt honesty as he pushes Ruben headfirst into the shelter may seem shocking but it soon creates a conduit for the young musician to learn and grow as a person. Raci’s Joe is softly spoken but tough in spirit.
Director Marder and the team behind Sound of Metal have done exceptionally well here and it culminates in one of the most exquisite and poignant endings in cinematic history.
The film does not solely rely on its soundscape: It utilises the actors, the writing, the cast and the crew to tell a character focussed story that may reverberate to many.
This is not just a lesson about the deaf community. At the core, it is about taking the moments as they come and adapting for yourself – no matter who or what you love.
That moment could be a palpable concert. That moment could be driving through sunsets. That moment could be finding a new home and family.
Or it could just be a moment of stillness – wherever that may be.