What follows when a drummer whose life revolves around a drum kit suddenly loses their hearing ability? That’s the answer Darius Marder’s directorial debut Sound of Metal tries to visualise, with Riz Ahmed delivering a searing performance that showcases loss and acceptance.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are part of a grunge/heavy metal duo, touring America and travelling in their equipment-laden RV. The movie kicks off with their nightly abrasive performances and gives us a glimpse of the ear-ringing sonic environment the couple envelops themselves at these live shows. Marder pumps the levels up to 11, almost as a foreshadowing to the hearing loss Ruben is about to endure.
One night, prior to their sound check, Ruben’s suddenly realises that everything around him sounds muffled and distorted. Once it sets in that this isn’t a momentary occurrence, he starts to panic.
He goes through with the show and visits an ear specialist the next day, who tells him that he has lost 70% of his hearing and that he shouldn’t expose himself to loud noises anymore so as to not worsen his condition. Upon his insistence, the doctor also tells him that there’s the option to get cochlear implants for a whopping $40,000 and Ruben decides to home in on that option.
Riz Ahmed has always been a fantastic actor. His big expressive eyes, while darting back and forth, do a convincing job of portraying fear, angst, and compassion. When you take dialogues out of the story, and replace it with a protagonist who has to embody every thought through their demeanour, posture and stance; that is where Ahmed shines the most.
The movie makes a bold choice about the road it wants to take with how it portrays deafness. There are people who believe it can be treated, and there are people who think it’s an extension of yourself and not a disability.
Ruben is also a recovering addict who sobered up when he met Lou four years ago. At this point, the only respite for the viewer comes in the form of Joe (Paul Raci); who takes Ruben under his wing and sponsors him so that he doesn’t relapse, while also introducing him to a hearing-impaired community.
The film also tries to tackle the perils of attaching your identity to your work, and how the disruption of one can uproot the other. As a recovering addict, Ruben’s entire sobriety hinged on the life he lived on the road as a musician, with the love of his life. It comes as no surprise when he looks at his hearing loss as a small hindrance to be solved and in order to move on.
The audio design in the movie flows in a way that dips the viewer in and out of carefully crafted sonic layers in daily environments, that gives us a sense of what Ruben is hearing. Before Ruben is faced with accepting this condition, he comes off as a calculative person. Always balancing a fine act between keeping his addiction at bay and pursuing music with Lou.
While this shows signs of promise, it’s also evident that the drummer still dreams of getting the implants and getting back on the road with Lou. He eventually sells his possessions and gets the implants, only to realise that the sound filtered through the implants is nowhere close to what normal sound would sound like.
That dichotomy of him coming to terms with what was, and what is, plays out beautifully on Ahmed’s face. Conversations and sounds get mixed with grating static, which leaves Ruben wondering if he’s still running away from accepting a life that has now inevitably become his reality.
With months of strict government enforced lockdowns because of COVID-19 turning every neighbourhood eerily quiet, it feels apposite to watch a movie like Sound of Metal that plays with sounds so brilliantly. The final thought the movie leaves you with, is that we will always need noise to appreciate the silence.
Sshiva Tejas M is a video producer and freelance writer/journalist who writes on culture, music and TV.