Ask any elementary school student who gets weirdly anxious every time they have to switch activities: transitions are the hardest. Sound of Metal is all about learning how to cope with unexpected life changes and adjusting to new circumstances. For example, the sudden loss of hearing for a person whose entire livelihood is built around music. Director Darius Marder brings the subject matter of Sound of Metal to life in inventive ways, viscerally exploring the concept of sound. It’s alternately destructively loud and oppressively silent. But as our hero comes to terms with his new limitations, it somehow finds balance.
Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is the drummer of a heavy metal band that he shares with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), and it’s really beginning to take off. The band and Lou are the two most important things in his life, which is why he’s so adrift when something happens that threatens his future with both. One day, Ruben wakes up and everything is muffled. An ENT confirms the very last thing any musician wants to be told: he’s losing his hearing. If he stops performing with the band, he might be able to preserve at least some of his hearing, or so he’s told. But he chooses instead to pretend that nothing’s wrong. And then, suddenly yet inevitably, he wakes up to the terrifying sound of nothing.
Riz Ahmed is a vibrant and mesmerizing catastrophe as he falls utterly to pieces. His natural intensity is a perfect match for Ruben, so committed is he to clinging to his old life that he ends up in a total downward spiral: the harder he fights to keep it, the faster it slips through his fingers. As he goes to a group home for people with hearing loss that essentially serves as a crash course in Deaf culture, he hangs all his hopes on the prospect of getting a cochlear implant. The implant, he assumes, will restore his hearing, his one opportunity to return back to normal. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that his life has been altered permanently, and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that.
Sound of Metal presents a realistic and thought-provoking look at the experience of going deaf. It’s even-handed in how it depicts the struggles that go along with such a major life transition, the constant adjustments, and very real losses that accompany losing your hearing. But it also doesn’t allow Ruben to wallow in his misery for too long. There’s a real community at his group home, and he makes connections he would never have expected. The more he is able to communicate using sign language, the more this separate Deaf world becomes a place he could see himself inhabiting. And yet he continues to fight at windmills, stubbornly resisting the sense of calm his new life brings him and focusing instead on the false promise of the cochlear implant and the old version of himself that he will never quite be again.
Because here’s the thing about cochlear implants: if you’ve always had severe hearing loss, a cochlear implant can be a godsend. It can give you enough auditory perception to hear a car horn warning you to get out of the way, or have some greater level of communication with the hearing. But if you spent most of your life with perfect hearing, and you’re expecting a cochlear implant to somehow bring that back, you’re setting yourself up for a disappointment. The version of hearing that one gives you is loud and artificial and oppressive, your brain’s clumsy attempt to circumvent the actual auditory process and give you a crude approximation of sound.
This is where Sound of Metal produces something truly unique. Its creative and immersive sound design takes the audience through different stages of hearing loss in a way that makes it feel real. The hazy sounds that serve as a warning bell for Ruben that something is very wrong with his hearing, voices that sound as though they’re all underwater, or he is. The dull buzz of tinnitus that drowns out every other sound, giving Ruben the frustrating feeling that if only it were to just go away he’d be able to make out what people were saying again. The exhausting screech of the cochlear-implant, filling his world not with sound, but noise. And finally, the quiet peace of pure silence.
Sound of Metal is a chaotic, vivid experience that provides great insight into the transition experience of learning to adjust to the loss of a key sense. Riz Ahmed’s performance is raw and deeply empathetic as he depicts a man in crisis and utter denial about his disability: he wants to go back, but eventually has to learn that you can only ever go forward. Marder’s work here paints a nuanced portrait of the Deaf in a way that they are rarely shown in media, as a community with their own language, culture, and traditions, that is different from the hearing world, but not inferior to it. These unique qualities of Sound of Metal as well as its truly distinctive approach to sound design make it a rich and rewarding viewing experience.