It’s not often a film leaves me absolutely astonished and speechless, and Darius Marder’s most recent directorial piece Sound of Metal is by far the most impactful films I have ever seen. Fresh from its multiple Academy Awards this year for Best Film Editing and Best Sound, I wanted to explore just how incredible and poignant this film really is. It was an anxiety-inducing masterpiece that followed the story of someone suffering with hearing loss, and how they’re able to cope with the difficulties of turning deaf. It’s a heartbreaking yet (in my opinion) peaceful film that studies the relationship between the protagonist (more on that later) and the deaf community – how they communicate and how they see the world around them. This review will contain spoilers, so you’ve been warned!
Sound of Metal tells the story of Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed, who gave one of the best performances not only of his career, but of the last decade in my opinion), a recovering addict who, along with his partner Lou (played by Olivia Cooke), have been playing together as a heavy metal band while touring the US. Ruben suffered initially from serious tinnitus that only deteriorated as he played more shows. His hearing deteriorated so much, the only thing he could hear was the sound of mumblings and low-pitched sounds. From this point on, his life drastically changed, not being able to communicate with the outside world through voice and hearing, and he had to adapt quickly to his own environment. Seeing his character freak out in real time along with his partner kept me on edge, as Ruben’s character was too stubborn enough initially to want any help. Lou arranged for him to stay at an isolated community for deaf people, led by Joe, (portrayed by Paul Raci), an alcoholic who lost his hearing during the Vietnam war. He was eager to get Ruben integrated within the community. Ruben, however, was eager to get his hearing back and opted for hearing aids that would eventually help restore some of his hearing. It was necessary being reminded that being deaf should never be considered a disability, and the strong-knit connections people within that community showed a light, peaceful side to life. One quote struck out at me from a conversation between Joe and Ruben that summarizes the main theme of the film:
“The world does keep moving and it can be a damn cruel place, But for me those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.“
Joe states this, as he learns of the surgery Ruben got to help restore his hearing. It was an enlightening moment, as it truly highlighted the essence of existence and our relationship with the outside world and ultimately God. The restless attitude Ruben has within the film, in many ways mimics our own interpretation of life around us. Influenced by cruelty, greed, egotism, narcissism, and a pace of life that is way too fast for us to truly keep up, it is a stark reminder that the serenity that Joe was talking about is so essential to maintaining that peace and serenity Joe was talking about. It humbles you as well in a way that people don’t realise. We’re so engulfed in our own lives, pressures from the outside world to perform and ‘succeed’, whatever that means anyway, that we forget to center our energy inward and find true appreciation for the life, nature, people we love around us. What is interesting here is that Ruben was the one who felt like the outsider, the person who didn’t belong. He really wasn’t fully prepared to embrace his own reality, and this subsequently led to him pretty much losing all he had. His partner Lou had completely moved on, he wasn’t making or performing music anymore, and his hearing, well… that was never going to come back. The hearing aids didn’t help as intended, and this was reflected poignantly in the sound design and mixing. It’s as if you’ve got his ears, a muffled, sometimes abrasive experience that was honestly far worse than what he experienced before. Just as I thought he wouldn’t experience serenity before, the ending happened.
It really is open to interpretation, one of my good friends disagreed with me on this. In the final scene, we see Ruben walking around the streets of Paris (where Lou lived with her father), hearing the muffled, metallic sounds that came out of his hearing aids. He finally sat down on a bench, observing the people around him and listening to the street noise. The church bells started ringing – a loud and overpowering sound that brought Ruben so much anxiety that he finally took his aids off. Silence. Complete silence. In the last few moments of the film, we experience Ruben looking around him, then to the sky, in complete silence and in a moment of, in my opinion, complete tranquility. An alternative take on this is that he was absolutely horrified by what he had lost, and the expressions on his face as he was looking at the sky were of complete pain and utter horror at what he had lost, but I disagree. Going back to Joe’s quote on stillness being the Kingdom of God, I feel like Ruben finally understood exactly what he was talking about. The abrasive and striking sounds of street life were all drowned out, all muted and all put to rest by Ruben. He wasn’t anxious anymore by the harsh, abrasive sounds of the church bells or the cars beeping, ambulance sirens, people talking, shouting. All of that didn’t exist. And I felt like in this defining moment, he felt closer to God and the divine. His fate was not in his hands anymore, and instead of feeling an existential dread, he finally accepted his reality. I’m still in awe of the ending, how something so silent can be so climactic. It was a flawless way to conclude this exceptional film.
What’s also crazy is how relatable this film is. Our bodies are fragile, and for the majority of us who can hear sound, it should be a reminder not to take things for granted. But it should also be a reminder not to characterise those different to us as being disabled or less capable to live and experience life, because there is a beauty in it. Life is filled with struggles and beauty can be found within that. Joe and the deaf community exemplified that, and there is also strength in community as well. This film was both incredibly emotive and anxiety-inducing, but it was so memorable to me for its sound design, the flawless performances from Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci and everyone else, as well as the painful and emotive story. I highly recommend you check it out, and it’s now available on Amazon Prime.