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Sound of Metal begins at a show; Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) play loudly to a crowd of fans. The two of them live together in a mobile home, touring as “BlackGammon”, playing metal similar to bands like Helms Alee, with Ruben on drums and Lou on guitar and vocals. Their life together seems happy and contented, but that all changes as Ruben discovers he is losing his hearing.
Ruben refuses to heed his doctor’s advice of staying away from loud noises or anything that could further damage his hearing, and instead continues to play shows. He’s not able to do this for very long before Lou catches on, and insists that he deal with his hearing loss right away. He’s strong-willed, and doesn’t want to accept what is happening; without Lou to support him, it seems like Ruben would keep going until he falls apart completely.
Not only is Ruben losing his hearing, but he’s also a heroin addict with four years of sobriety. With his sponsor and Lou’s help, he finds a deaf sober community to live in, where he can learn American Sign Language (ASL) and come to terms with what’s happening to him, while being supported by fellow sober (and deaf) people. At first, he’s incredibly resistant to this — he’s focused on getting a cochlear implant, getting his hearing back, and his life back to how it was before.
I’ve been a fan of Riz Ahmed since I first saw him in HBO’s The Night Of, and I look forward to seeing him in more leading roles. His performance in Sound of Metal as Ruben perfectly channels frustration, loneliness, and determination. Ruben is struggling with a loss of not only his hearing, but his relationship, his job, and his entire identity. As an addict, we can assume that he’s already had to completely rebuild his life once, and now he has to do it again.
Sound of Metal is a story of acceptance, and it’s a tale that many recovering addicts are likely familiar with. Learning how to sit with oneself is no easy task when we’ve been intensely focused on distracting ourselves and hiding from our own emotions. Even though Ruben has been sober for a while, he still struggles with this. As a recovering addict myself, I really appreciated this addition to Ruben’s story and found it relatable.
Ruben finds a mentor in his sober community in Joe, played by Paul Raci. Joe urges Ruben to learn how to be still and to sit with himself; he tasks him with sitting in a room, by himself, every morning, with nothing but a piece of paper and pen. He tries to impress upon Ruben that deafness is not a disability, but a different way of living and communicating. Despite having the support of those around him, Ruben still struggles to concede to this new way of life.
This is the first feature written and directed by Darius Marder (writer of The Place Beyond the Pines) and I’m excited to see what he does next. Sound of Metal is beautifully filmed, and the live performances feel as much like an actual live performance as I’ve ever seen in a movie. While I cannot speak for the deaf community, he clearly made efforts to make this movie accessible and inclusive, casting members of the deaf community, and choosing to release it with open captions (unlike closed captions, which have to be turned on by the viewer).
The attention to sound design in this movie is absolutely incredible. Sounds that we may often ignore or take for granted are focused on, like the rustling of leaves. As Ruben loses hearing, we’re hearing things as he may be hearing them — muffled, distant, quiet, and it gets quieter as his hearing decreases.
Sound of Metal is a poignant and intense film. With 2020 forcing a lot of us to change our way of life, this film has a valuable message to share about acceptance and learning to sit with ourselves. It’s about asking ourselves what really matters, and how we respond to change. It’s an important film that should not be missed.
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