Dir. Darius Marder; Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke
[4 out of 4 stars]
Darius Marder’s directorial debut Sound of Metal (2020) is surprisingly multifaceted. On one hand, it’s about a heavy metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing and must either come to terms with that fact or fight to change it. It’s also a narrative about addiction and recovery, loss and grief and trauma, and the people who support us through difficult periods. And, it’s about stillness — finding, as one character says, “moments of stillness” in which to sit and just be. It’s a lesson that hits home not only because we are all trapped inside ourselves and our homes by a pandemic, but also because it’s an exploration of a completely different way of living that, as someone who is half deaf, seems within the realm of possibility.
The film opens with a high-pitched guitar squeal and a shot of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) sitting behind his drum set on a dark stage, shirtless, a tattoo reading “please kill me” across his chest. When his girlfriend and band mate Lou (Olivia Cooke) starts singing, Ruben drums, aggressively, muscles straining, stark stage lights flashing. Ruben and Lou make up a heavy metal duo and, at the start of the film, they are on tour, driving across the country and living happily in an RV together. But within minutes of the film’s inception, Ruben starts noticing a high-pitched whine in his ears, a problem that becomes more noticeable when he messes up one of their songs after missing Lou’s cues. When an audiologist confirms that Ruben has lost 80 percent of his hearing, his NA sponsor finds him a bucolic shelter for Deaf recovering addicts. But Ruben struggles with his separation from Lou and just wants to fix what he sees as a problem through cochlear implants, rather than come to terms with his new reality.
A great deal of credit is due to Sound of Metal’s sound designer Nicolas Becker, who creates a beautiful soundscape that mixes what Ruben hears with what a third-party hearing observer would be able to hear. At first, this means that everyday ambient sounds are suddenly shot through with high-pitched whines or dull throbbings, disconcerting sounds that happen suddenly and disrupt our experience of the film as they do Ruben’s life. The most heart-wrenching moment for me came when Lou, alarmed, confronts Ruben about what’s going on, and we see him mouth, “I can’t hear anything” without actually hearing the words ourselves because he cannot hear his own voice. For an extended period of the early part of the film, we hear only what Ruben can: muffled sounds, quiet, tinny voices. The contrast is best exemplified when he visits an audiologist who tests his hearing by reading out words and having him repeat them back. From Ruben’s aural point of view, we perceive only muffled suggestions of sounds, an experience that leads our frustration to build as his does. A cutaway to the audiologist’s side of the room is paired with clear, singular speech. Such thoughtful sound design leads us to empathize with Ruben as we experience, to a degree, what this major life transition is like. It also forces us to reflect on how important sound is in our lives and how lonely life can be without any form of communication. For instance, during Ruben’s first dinner at the shelter, he has not learned ASL and so eats in silence, unable to understand any of the jokes being made by the other members. Around the table, everyone else is smiling and bantering, part of a community that is inaccessible to Ruben at that point.
Sound of Metal works so well because of Ahmed’s performance, which is nothing short of sensational. Setting aside the commitment that led him to learn both ASL and drumming for the film, his performance is a delicate balancing act between the rage his character Ruben contains and the heavy metal noise that helps him release it, and the silence and stillness that he faces. Ahmed hits every note perfectly, from the first fragile moments when he realizes how serious his hearing loss is (gasping for breath, shaking, pacing as if he does not know what to do with himself) to the moments when his frustration erupts into violence and shouting. So much of the film is conveyed solely through closeups on Ahmed’s beautifully expressive face. We watch him come to terms with his new life and try to fight it, all the while conveying so much deep emotion with only his eyes and mere shifts in facial expression. It’s a truly exquisite performance that makes me eager to see what roles he will take on from here. I especially loved watching him together with Cooke, who also turns in a fantastically nuanced performance. Most of her best acting comes through facial expressions; much of what she says cannot be communicated with words since Ruben cannot hear her. One standout scene is when the couple says goodbye as Ruben prepares to return to the shelter; while he overflows with words, talking about how much he loves her and how she should wait for him, she is almost completely silent. Her eyes are locked on him, and her face is a mess of sadness, love, and fear as the feelings overwhelm her. Cooke is able to convey so perfectly the love that her character Lou has for Ruben and the dependency they have for each other.
In some ways, watching Sound of Metal reminded me of how we are all processing the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s denial, confusion, grief, rage, acceptance, moments of clarity and connection interspersed with depression and loneliness. And looming over it all is the knowledge that things cannot and will not ever go back to the way they were before, no matter how hard we try to fight it. As Lou says at one point, “it’s disconcerting the things your memory hangs on to without you knowing.” Like Ruben, our old lives are gone, and we must try to move forward. I hope that — as Sound of Metal does — we can eventually find some measure of peace with that.