I rarely think about a film’s sound design.
With all due respect to the creatives behind it, I usually focus on plot, character, acting, set design, even costuming, before I think about sound. Sound is the group of categories during the Academy Awards I take a bathroom break during. There are only two films that I can recall being impressed by their use of sound: Dunkirk and A Quiet Place. In a way, sound is something I take for granted.
Coming away from Sound of Metal, it was that oft-overlooked titular element that made the most impact on me. It seems like an obvious observation: of course a film about a drummer with sudden hearing loss is going to deal in sound. And yet, it’s difficult not to be astonished by what director Darius Marder accomplishes with audial choices that, at their best, feel downright audacious. It’s downright impossible not to be blown away by the film’s other key takeaway: Riz Ahmed’s performance.
Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, the aforementioned drummer in a metal band he’s formed with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Their nomadic life is upended when Ruben suddenly loses his ability to hear. He consults a specialist who tells him he’s lost up to 80 percent of his hearing. Cochlear implants can offer some relief, but they are very expensive and are not covered by insurance. Worried that Ruben’s sobriety – he has a history of heroin abuse – is at stake, Lou leaves him to a sober deaf community, where he attempts to reconcile his old life with this new, unexpected one.
Ruben’s transition isn’t easy, and Marder goes to great, disarming lengths to communicate the challenges. The moment where Ruben loses his hearing is shockingly abrupt: the backstage bustle and banter is replaced with a tinny, high-pitched ring that sits above the muffled sounds that were crystal-clear a moment ago. The discomfiting absence of full sound floods the next stretch of scenes: as Ruben tries to drum even though he can’t hear himself or Lou; as he tests his own voice the next morning and hears almost nothing; as he stands shell-shocked in the shower, unable to hear the water running; when he seeks the help of a pharmacist but can only make out a low mumble.
Eventually, full sound returns so that Ruben’s hearing specialist can lay the stakes out for him and us, but the impression that initial absence leaves is profound. The muted humming recurs throughout the film, cut between moments of both intimate stillness and boisterous rage. The impact varies scene to scene, and I sometimes wondered whether the film might’ve worked if full sound never returned. Perhaps not, but Marder’s efforts to recreate Ruben’s deafness is laudable. We not only understand and empathize with the gravity of Ruben’s loss, but also how he could adjust to and accept his new life.
Empathy is a word that permeates Sound of Metal, as does dignity. Ruben’s story could’ve easily been a maudlin and exploitative tale that robs those with hearing loss of agency and nuance, a common issue in depicting alternative and marginalized communities. The Deaf community that Ruben inhabits isn’t explored as a curiosity, but with grace and appreciation of its approach to living. Marder chooses not to derive drama from Ruben’s integration; the tension comes from the character’s interior battle, which allows his moments of connection and acceptance – sketching a fellow member’s tattoo, teaching kids how to drum – to resonate without being clichéd. It also makes his regression devastating. Ironically, some of the painstakingly-built momentum is lost when Lou is reintroduced, with scenes that, while well-acted, lack the laser focus of what came before.
Speaking of acting, we must discuss Riz Ahmed. Simply put, he gives one of the year’s best performances in an incredibly difficult role. Large swaths of Sound of Metal have no dialogue, either to demonstrate the community’s use of American Sign Language or to convey Ruben’s transition to a life in silence. It requires an actor to recalibrate how they communicate their character, trading the verbal for more kinetic, visual choices.
Ahmed far exceeds the challenge that Marder lays at his feet. Even in silence, he is an exposed live wire on screen, sparking with every charged shift of his eyes or twitch in his face. He communicates Ruben’s traits and history – specifically his addictive personality and past drug abuse – in affecting ways that make up for what’s missing on the page. Frustration, denial, rage, devastation, heartbreak, serenity: the full spectrum of Ruben’s interiority is palpable, and Ahmed’s command over every emotion is spellbinding. A film like Sound of Metal lives and dies by its central performance, and Ahmed is a tour de force deserving of a Best Actor Oscar nomination, if not the win.
Sound of Metal certainly isn’t the first film to explore deafness, but it feels like an a significant advancement in how its depicted on screen. The film never pities its subjects, or casts them as victims. It challenges its lead character, and the audience, to radically accept what seems inconceivable, and find the moments of stillness and peace where possible. That message resonates with our current moment, and delivered by the potent combination of Darius Marder and Riz Ahmed, leaves a lasting impact, regardless of circumstance.