There are a lot of films that treat disability as the last step before death. A tragic fate that magically provides the person’s able-bodied friend/lover/family with a source of inspirational hope to live each day to the fullest. Thankfully, Sound of Metal is not one of those movies. In Darius Marder’s sensational debut, disability is not something that boxes one in, but rather it is the key to unlocking a whole new sense of community.
Of course, unlocking such a world involves allowing oneself to be open to new possibilities. This is something that Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer in a metal band and recovering addict, struggles to come to terms with. On tour with his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben discovers one day that he is having problems hearing. After a test reveals that he has lost 70% of his hearing in both ears, Ruben is determined to get a cochlear implant procedure done so that he can continue his musical career.
Unfortunately, these types of surgeries are very expensive and the odds of restoring his hearing back to the level it was at before is slim. At the request of his sponsor, and pressured by Lou, Ruben reluctantly agrees to check into a facility that specializes in training hearing impaired individuals to “learn how to be deaf.” Run by Joe (Paul Raci), a deaf war veteran, the ranch style facility features a strict set of rules and long-term approaches that are at direct odds with Ruben’s “this situation is only temporary” mindset. Even as Ruben slowly learns sign language and becomes a more prominent member within the community, he finds it hard to shake his desire to get the surgery.
Rather than portray Ruben’s obsession with hearing again as a triumphant goal, Sound of Metal presents it as a form of addiction. A drug that gives the illusion of happiness, but will only lead to crushing disappointment. Ruben is so blinded by his desire to be reintegrated into his old life with his girlfriend that he fails to truly see that, even with the cochlear implant, his life is forever changed.
Whether capturing the way sound is filtered through implants or delving into the decline of Ruben’s hearing, Marder’s film is a sensory experience to behold. The sound design is phenomenal on several levels. It brings a richness to everything from the way Ruben and Lou’s experiences sound, or lack thereof, in certain scenes; to the way vibrations allow Ruben to showcase his talent to the kids at the facility. As if a supporting character in the film, the sound mixing not only puts one in Ruben’s shoes, but also further accentuates Riz Ahmed’s brilliantly nuanced performance. What makes Ahmed work so mesmerizing is his ability to bring vulnerability to character without ever seeking the viewer’s pity.
Placing disability, and the sense of community it often fosters, at the forefront, Marder’s film skillfully avoids many of the tropes often associated with disability-centric narratives. An engulfing sensory experience, Sound of Metal is an astonishing work that only gets richer on repeat viewings.