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'Sound of Metal' tries to find meaning after all sound is lost
by Jeremy Fogelman
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Shaheem Sanchez, Chelsea Lee, Jeremy Stone, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Darius Marder
Anytime something is portrayed that is a loss of the norm, it can be tricky to handle. In the deaf community, there is a very common specific perspective that hearing loss is not disability, but simply a different way to experience life. This is the sort of thing that seems like it would be heartening to those in the community, especially those born with hearing loss. But it can be harder, sometimes impossibly so, for those outside it to see it as anything but a disaster.
Sound of Metal comes from director Darius Marder who co-wrote it with Abraham Marder in his first narrative feature film. The movie stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a drummer in a small band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) -- short for Louise, naturally. At the start of the movie, we see Ruben as a talented performer, drumming with great power in rooms filled with noise of all sorts -- his drums, his girlfriend’s hard core metal singing, and the roaring of the crowds in small clubs and venues.
Exactly why it happens is unclear and not entirely important, but Ruben notices a sudden, terrifying loss of hearing one day. At first he tries to power through it, but as things get worse and all he can hear are lost buzzes and little murmurs. A doctor tells him that he needs to focus on keeping the tiny hearing he has left, but this is not something Ruben can handle -- his dream of musical success is his only real driver.
But eventually he can’t hear well enough to manage a show, and he finally brings himself to tell Lou the truth. So they find a program out in the country, an isolated community that helps those with hearing loss. The head of the program, a friendly, calming sort named Joe (Paul Raci) offers a potential free ride since he’s in need, but Ruben only needs to leave his phone behind.
It’s an interesting part of the story, as Lou heads off to continue her own musical dream while Ruben must adjust and learn to accept his new life. Ruben is resistant for a while, having an idea of getting an expensive procedure (entirely elective and not entirely reliable) to get some hearing back. So at first it’s simply about lasting long enough to get to maybe having the money for his surgery.
We see a fascinating, very well done set of scenes showing Ruben learning sign language and acclimating to his new world. He even manages to teach and interact with a class of deaf kids in a charming scene. But there is a troublesome history that Ruben still struggles with, and there remains an ongoing conflict between the acceptance of a new life and the great risks for the potential of a life reduced.
Riz Ahmed gives a truly great performance here, going from highs to lows, emotional calm and happiness with others to epic loss and sporadic fury. The filmmakers have done a lot of research into this community, working with primarily hearing impaired actors (or in the case of Paul Raci, the son of deaf parents).
It isn’t a silent movie, although at parts the sounds of what Ruben can hear feel realistic and help immerse the audience in the same place of loss Ruben has found. It’s an interesting movie, one of those that tells an arc that isn’t necessarily complete but has a wistful, promising feeling to it. It’s not about the tragedy, it’s about the survival, and it handles that with grace and respect.