A blonde shirtless tatted drummer sits at his kit, surveying the audience in front of him. Screeching feedback tears across the speakers, hitting your ears like a stick to a snare’s drum skin. He doesn’t know it, but in a few short hours he’ll lose his hearing and his way of life. Loss invades Darius Marder’s thoughtful and innovative Sound of Metal.
Reuben (Riz Ahmed) is that metal drummer, and a recovering addict. Sober for four years, he lives and tours in an airstream with his girlfriend and lead-singer Lou (Olivia Cooke), until one day he wakes up and can’t hear. Marder often captures Ahmed using profile shots and low-key lighting to paint the unfamiliar new soundless world Reuben inhabits. Scared and in need of help, Lou eventually coaxes him into entering a deaf community. He meets with the program director, a Vietnam War veteran, the stern and loving Joe (Paul Raci). Joe believes deafness, though a disability, does not make you incomplete, nor requires fixing. Instead, one should become at peace through quiet introspection and a faith in God, and above all else, learn American Sign Language (ASL). On the other hand, Reuben holds out hope of saving enough money to get cochlear implants to restore his hearing and return to his ‘normal’ life.
The British-born Ahmed crafts a gruff east-coast accent, while his eyes—widening to emit fear, frustration, confusion, and sometimes love—are a lesson in non-verbal acting. He also displays Reuben’s junkie habits. Though he remains sober throughout Sound of Metal, Reuben’s attraction to the implants is just another low-level fix before the real hit: hearing. Like any addict, he’s resistant to confronting his issues: change and loss. Instead, searching for the feeling, the high of hearing he once had. Likewise, Olivia Cooke radiates on screen—oscillating between distress and affection, agitation and trepidation.
Sound of Metal relies on closed-captioning, even when characters aren’t signing. I personally hope every theater that plays this film keeps these subtitles. The sound design in Marder’s film reverberates, immersing viewers without warning into the muffled cotton ball noise of limited hearing. Here—acting as foreshadowing—the silence is soothing. Edited to sharp and grating levels, when viewers are given a taste of those muffled sounds—usually in short bursts, the return to full audio singes the viewer’s ears with a cacophonous crash.
Marder’s screenplay delicately handles ableism—understanding the complexities of disability. Though, sometimes he’s logically too reliant on Joe’s religiosity, the overall argument of Reuben’s hesitancy to accept change stands. Reuben’s period within the deaf community sees him learn sign, teach children to drum, and develop friendships. Ultimately, he throws his future in the community in jeopardy—never buying that he’s not broken, never embracing the full lives those with deafness live: the same loves, hopes, and happiness. And when he finally gets what he wants, like a shoddy King Midas’ touch, everything he hears turns to rust. Sound of Metal is a thoughtful examination of the deaf community, and an innovative production of sound design.