Director: Darius Marder
Writers: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric
Cinematographer: Daniël Bouquet
Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a heavy-metal drummer who loses his sense of hearing. The film opens with Ruben in the middle of a performance, his muscular bare chest inked with the words “Please Kill Me” amongst other things. His girlfriend of four years, Lou (Olivia Cooke), is the singer of the duo. When they wake up in his RV the next morning, we notice that Lou’s body, too, bears scars of a past. Her wrists are disfigured with cuts, like suicidal tattoos imprinted onto her flesh in code language. Yet, contrary to what their physical appearances suggest, the two look oddly at peace with one another. Their drives from one interstate gig to the next are peppered with light conversation and jokes and naps, as though they were in their own indie road movie. The RV is their little world within a world: a cocoon of healing constructed to cancel out the noise of history that hurt them. Their relationship is young and sensory, full of sight and smell and touch and plenty of sound.
Minutes into the film, Ruben begins to go deaf. The sound design turns adventurous, choosing to plant us in his head at the risk of distorting our viewing experience. The result is terrifyingly immersive. Like a painter going blind, Ruben remains defiant, in denial of the quiet that strangles his music. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not an artist story. Lou looks panicked, as if she were jolted out of her reverie; he is stricken, but her own silence is deafening. The first person Lou seeks help from is Ruben’s long-time sponsor, which implies that he is a recovering addict. The sponsor directs them to Joe (Paul Raci), a hearing-impaired ex-soldier who heads a self-sustaining deaf community. Joe houses deaf young men and women, equipping them with American sign language and a sense of togetherness. But most importantly, he teaches them to accept their disability. He conditions them to stop fighting their fate and enjoy the serenity. Ruben is wary of Joe’s spiritual-cult-like philosophy. One of the most harrowing scenes of the year features Lou having to leave Ruben in their care. He will not be allowed any contact with the outside world, but Ruben can’t envision a life without her. He can barely breathe, almost doubling over with separation anxiety while watching her taxi speed away.
This is when the core of the film reveals itself. Joe’s community is in fact more of a rehabilitation facility – to rescue those who are addicted to the music of life. It’s a place that enables people to embrace their newfound stillness, curing them of violent hope. Ruben is the newest of these addicts; he replaced his heroin habit with a love habit, pining for the relationship that became his drug. He sneaks a peek at her email early on, breaking the rules and inviting Joe’s priestly disappointment. He feels deafer than most at the dinner table; they smile and tease and banter with their hands while his mind is aching to hear their emotions.
Once Ruben starts to settle in, actor-rapper Riz Ahmed’s profound understanding of ambition kicks in. We see an undramatic montage of Ruben becoming the soul of the place. Time becomes his friend. Even the craft conspires to tempt him. We distinctly hear the anatomy of silence that surrounds him: the gentle breeze, the velvety grass, the chirp of crickets, airplanes in the distant sky, the wild yawns of nature. These heightened ambient sounds divide his days, almost as a provocative reminder of what he’s missing. Even tranquility has a voice, it seems to suggest.
Riz Ahmed reveals this restlessness in the body language of an addict who has relapsed. He lies, sweats, sneaks around and deals on the side with a sort of tragic desperation, wherein all he’s really doing is daring to dream again
It works. At some level, Ruben wears the pensive gait of someone who considers the group’s inability to afford medical correction as a symbol of resignation. He is restless, and doesn’t want to reach the point of no return like everyone else out there. He wants laughter to sound like joy and tears to sound like sadness; the prospect of reconceptualizing a silent film in the age of talkies is crippling. Remarkably, Ahmed reveals this restlessness in the body language of an addict who has relapsed. He lies, sweats, sneaks around and deals on the side with a sort of tragic desperation, wherein all he’s really doing is daring to dream again. It’s an unsettling, heartbreaking performance – and one that resists fetishizing a condition that requires the reluctant recalibration of survival instinct. The actor’s face is an ocean of presentness. He possesses the rare power to radiate solitude at will, which transforms his characters into inherent loners looking for psychological crutches. We feel for Ruben because we know Lou has long been the identity of his best self; he is yet to discover what it means to be strong on his own.
The final act imparts a crucial bit of information about one of them, which retrospectively challenges our perception of Ruben and Lou’s relationship. We were so used to defining Lou in the currency of his life that the possibility of Ruben’s role in hers escaped our attention. Ruben’s deafness is a metaphor for how we might have forgotten to consider her song, her own invisible journey, in the face of his tortured drumming. The resolution is predictable but necessary. It confirms the fact that love has no sound. The breaking of a heart is not audible. At its core, loving is both rescuing and being rescued – from isolation, from joy, from society, from the past. It is a transactional feeling, and romance is merely the collateral damage.
When a human changes, their sound is what changes first: the way they speak, think, converse, react and communicate. In Ruben’s case, he craves for the memory of cacophony rather than the tangibility of noise. He yearns to be a person rather than a phase. Sound of Metal, though, stands as a moving testament to his new truth: it’s better to have heard and lost than never to have heard at all.