Sound of Metal

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Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal.
Photo: Amazon Studios


Sound of Metal


Amazon Prime


3/5 Stars


Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is the drummer of a heavy metal band that he formed with his singer girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), but when he suddenly and very rapidly starts to lose his hearing, his whole world is turned on its head. The promise of a cochlear implant gives him at least some hope for his future, but Ruben is an addict whose connections to sobriety lay in his music and his relationship with Lou. After checking into a halfway house for the newly deaf and is forced to separate, at least temporarily, from Lou, will he be able to hold on long enough just to get through the following months?


Sound design is an aspect of filmmaking that is all too easily overlooked even by the most avid of movie fans, but it takes centre stage in Sound of Metal. Indeed, even more than Riz Ahmed, the film's leading man who is in literally every single scene, the sound of Sound of Metal is the true star of the film.

At the time of writing this, the film has just been nominated for a whole host of Oscars, including deserved recognition for Riz Ahmed, as well as nods for best original screenplay and best film. Honestly, I think there are better options in all these categories, but its nomination for best sound (it looks like the Academy finally gave up on trying to tell the difference between sound mixing and sound editing and combined them into one category) isn't just more than deserved, it should be the easiest win in Academy Award history.

I could not recommend enough watching Sound of Metal through a good pair of headphones because what director, Darius Marder (who also wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham, based on a story by himself and Derek Cianfrance) is clearly most interested in doing is putting the audience in the ears of Ruben and to hear the world from his point of view at crucial moments in the story.

The film constantly switches between a typical audience POV and Ruben's own aural perception of the world. When the film is told from "our" point of view, the ace sound engineers - led by the now Oscar-nominated team of Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Bladh – create a world of sonic clarity, space and lushness that is bolstered by a lack of an incidental musical score.

When it switches to Rubin's perspective, though, the sound of the film becomes claustrophobic as Rubin's hearing degrades from an indistinct, muffled murmur to a weirdly dissonant white noise that is replaced by the cold, sharp, mechanical, distorted sound of his cochlear implant later in the movie. His deafness is, ironically enough, deafening.

The one time the two viewpoints intersect, then, is right at the start of the film where an extended sequence of Ruben and Lou playing some deafening heavy metal music gives us the first glimpse into what Ruben's "noisy", addict mind sounds like even before deafness creates something, ironically, even more, discordant and cacophonous in his head. The film's superbly visceral sound design gives us a peek into Ruben's deafness, yes, and into his mental health as the film draws an interesting and quite moving connection between what we hear and what we think.

Riz Ahmed is an impressive if intense actor. He throws himself headfirst into Sound of Metal's prickly, defiantly introverted and serious lead character with truly awards-worthy results, but because his performance is so internal and so quiet, it is the sound design of the film that best defines who Ruben is for the audience and how he grows throughout the film.            

The film is, in many respects, deeply flawed: it's very slow, almost entirely humourless, and its plot – such as it is – is both overly familiar and fairly threadbare. Indeed, it left me rather underwhelmed when I finished watching it – albeit underwhelmed with a grudging respect for its performances and that immediately captivating sound design. Over the past few days, though, the Sound of Metal has simply refused to leave my mind and that admiration for the film's technical aspects began to transform into genuine appreciation for the way the film uses its sound design to build character, to reveal hidden thematic depths, and to turn the simplicity of the film's plot into a virtue.    

And yet, despite my new-found appreciation of the film overall, I can't quite bring myself to give it a higher rating. This has less to do with the film's narrative shortcomings, though - which, as I say, seem smaller by the day – but by a particularly off-putting aspect of what is an otherwise incredibly well-intentioned attempt to refute the orthodoxy around deafness as a disability to overcome rather than as a different way of being.

There is something deeply moving and admirable about the way the film reframes the deaf community's – or at least the part of it represented here – inability to hear into an ability to properly listen, but there is something awfully tone-deaf about how it does so by vilifying cochlear implants: a technological miracle that, though imperfect and not for everyone, have very positively impacted the lives of countless deaf people worldwide. I've seen these positive effects, in person.

Not only does the film make numerous factual errors about the procedure – it is, despite what the film says, covered by medical aids and Medicare in the USA, and the whole process of getting the procedure and then adjusting to your new hearing is generally much lengthier, much more gradual and much more sensitively handled than it is shown to be here – but it depicts those who want to have the procedure of being somehow weak and cowardly; of being "betrayers" of the deaf "lifestyle". 

It's astonishing that a movie that spends this much effort trying to normalise and de-stigmatise deafness is so brazenly insensitive towards such a large part of this same community. It detracts from the many good aspects of the film and leaves a lingering sour taste in the mouth that taints the whole experience. And unlike some of the film's other flaws, this one does not look any better a few days later.


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