At certain unexpected times in our lives, some of us experience life-changing personal catastrophes; the kind of catastrophes that cause us to fundamentally reinvent ourselves, learning to live as a person affected by such traumas.
Oscar Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal follows the journey of Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer who experiences sudden-onset severe hearing loss, and struggles to come to terms with his condition.
Despite his initial denial, Ruben knows that he cannot continue his current lifestyle in this state. He learns that progress is not always linear; there are good days, and there are not-so-good days. Through the depiction of Ruben’s highs and lows, director Darius Marder creates a beautiful story about acceptance and adapting to whatever life throws your way.
Ruben and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) live together in an RV, travelling around the country to perform gigs for their heavy metal band Blackgammon. It seems as though Ruben has always struggled with his hearing, but it gets worse than he ever could have imagined when he wakes up one morning unable to hear anything.
After paying a visit to Dr. Paysinger, (Tom Kemp) and being told that he only has about 20 percent of his hearing left in both ears, Ruben finds himself in a state of denial. All he is concerned about is getting his hearing—his livelihood—back, which the doctor informs him is not possible: “The hearing that you have lost is not coming back. Your first responsibility is to preserve the hearing you still have.” Despite the doctor’s suggestion to eliminate exposure to loud noise and stop playing for the band, Ruben is insistent that he can still go on tour.
Lou puts her foot down and instead takes him to a deaf community to seek additional help. There, he meets Paul Raci’s character Joe: a deaf alcoholic who runs the community as a support group for people who have lost their hearing. Joe insists that Ruben stay with him for a few weeks to learn sign language and develop a better mindset about his condition so that he can “learn to be deaf.”
Riz Ahmed, who is also known for his roles as Carlton Drake in Venom (2018) and Rick in Nightcrawler (2014), did an outstanding job with his performance as Ruben.
Littered with tattoos and dropping f-bombs in nigh every sentence he speaks, Ruben is exactly what you’d expect a drummer for a heavy metal band to look like. Ahmed takes the character one step further, both through his acting and the rigorous research that went into preparing for this role.
Ahmed helped with some of the behind the scenes work for Sound of Metal, serving as an executive producer who worked next to director Darius Marder to research hearing loss and deafness in order to ensure that it was accurately portrayed.
Best known for his smaller roles in TV shows like Parks and Recreation, Scrubs, and Baskets, Paul Raci’s performance as Joe was amazing, and he has an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination to show for it. Wise but emotionally driven, Joe wants the best for Ruben but does not hesitate to reprimand him for his shortcomings. It’s a tough love situation, and Raci portrays it perfectly.
Thematically, Sound of Metal is rich with life lessons and useful takeaways.
On top of Ruben’s deafness, he is also a former drug addict. Lou worries that he is going to fall back into old habits as a coping mechanism after losing his hearing, and to some extent he does. He starts smoking cigarettes again, which might seem miniscule compared to some of the hard drugs that he had previously been addicted to, but it’s still a step in the wrong direction.
Ruben isn’t one to accept help from others, which is why he had such a difficult time transitioning into Joe’s deaf community. In his mind, Lou is all he needs. However, it’s clear that Lou struggles with her own issues, as evidenced by the self-harm scars that litter her arms. Up until now, they had served as each other’s support systems. They both learn that there’s no harm in needing more help than what they were able to provide for one another. Sound of Metal teaches us that recovery and progress aren’t always linear, and there’s no shame in seeking additional help if you need it.
It’s impossible to watch this film without appreciating the effort that went into the sound design and the editing that made it work so well. Audio is especially important in Sound of Metal, because Ruben cannot hear like the rest of the characters. In order to effectively convey the severity of Ruben’s deafness, the audience is occasionally put in his head; the sound shifts from what the people around him hear to what he hears.
When Ruben goes to the doctor and takes a hearing test, you first hear what he hears. The doctor’s words are muffled and indistinguishable, so it’s no surprise when the audio switches to what the doctor hears and you discover that Ruben has not repeated a single word correctly. Editor Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker and the rest of the sound department made this film even more extraordinary with their combined efforts to create this unique auditory experience.
Rated R for language and brief nudity, Sound of Metal is not appropriate for all audiences, especially younger viewers. However, I think that this film is an important step forward for the hearing impaired community and those in recovery from addiction. I would recommend that those within that group see this film, and not hesitate to be critical of it. If the film has shortcomings that do not accurately portray deafness or do so in a way that is problematic, it should be made known so that the same mistakes are not made again in future films.
Sound of Metal undeniably deserves the Oscar Best Picture nomination that it received. It addresses some difficult topics that are often overlooked, and it does so in a way that viewers can understand and appreciate as they are put in Ruben’s head and gain insight about how he experiences life differently than they do. Thanks to the film’s nuanced acting and outstanding production values, you don’t need to be deaf to get where Ruben is coming from.
IMAGE TAKEN from NME
IMAGE TAKEN from the Chicago Sun-Times
IMAGE TAKEN from IMDb