Sound of Metal
Amazon Prime UK, 12 April
Listen. What can you hear? The whirring of your coffee machine, the background chatter of people talking – pre-pandemic, the hubbub of a bar or the clamour of a gig. Now, imagine you can hear nothing. What would that be like? And what if hearing was your job?
This is the situation facing Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed), a burly former heroin addict with peroxide hair, who has replaced drugs with playing the drums in a heavy metal band and travelling from gig to gig with his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke).
Ruben has been clean for four years, but his post-addiction life isn’t exactly calm. He has please kill me tattooed on his chest. He starts his days with turmeric smoothies and press-ups but ends them performing music that sounds like rage distilled into rhythm. The compulsive mindset isn’t gone, it has just been redirected.
Then one day, at a record store, Ruben starts to lose his hearing. Voices become muffled. Within days, he barely hears anything at all. A doctor tells him that cochlear implants, surgically implanted devices that electrically stimulate the auditory nerves, are possible but cost up to $80,000 and aren’t covered by insurance. Ruben cannot work. He cannot hear. The life he has built hangs on the edge.
Director and co-writer Darius Marder has experimented with an innovative and affecting soundscape that allows us to hear the way Ruben hears. The low-level buzz of everyday living is replaced with a frightening quiet.
Worried that Ruben will return to drugs, Lou finds him a community centre for deaf people with addictions run by Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing after a bomb exploded, and who strongly believes deafness shouldn’t be considered a disability.
At first, Ruben finds dinner with the others at the centre disturbingly silent and strange. His mannerisms become less febrile, and we see a burgeoning affinity with his peers emerge through low-key sports games, and one particularly touching scene where he teaches deaf students how to play the drums.
Yet, even as Ruben semi-flourishes in the unexpected peace of a soundless world, the knowledge of what could be – cochlear implants and his old life – chips away at him. When he can finally afford them after making sacrifices that may damage his personal life, the unexpectedly distorted din the implants offer, all underwater muffles and high-pitched screeches, repels him. A question that goes unanswered in the film is why Ruben isn’t properly prepared by his doctors for the limitations and drawbacks of the implants – the strangeness of the sounds he (and we) can now hear. It is clear, however, his old life is lost.
Music is Ruben’s job, so it easy to sympathise with his mission to recover his hearing, but this puts him up against those at the community centre who celebrate deafness. Joe is very clear that Ruben isn’t welcome after his surgery. The reasons for this seem both unfair and reasonable – however hard, Ruben must make a choice.
Ahmed’s performance, where strength and fragility jostle for supremacy, entirely merits his Golden Globe and Oscars best-actor nomination. He portrays Ruben’s vulnerability with every panicked glance, while his sullen refusal to accept a changed reality slowly morphs into acquiescence and then a fragile enjoyment.
The Sound of Metal is a captivating watch that will have you thinking about how deafness is viewed, both by the people who experience it and society as a whole. A beautiful scene in which Ruben removes his implants to the sound of blissful silence shows us that sometimes contentment lies in the strangest places.
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