Sound Of Metal (Cert 15)
Digital/VOD (Distributor: Amazon Prime) Running Time: 120 minutes approx.
We all have things in life that we takes for granted and as the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Top of that list would our well-being, to wit – our physical and mental health. Break a leg, it will heal; lose a finger, you have nine others; lose your sight or your hearing, well that’s a different matter.
Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), the drummer in a metal duo Blackgammon with girlfriend Lou Bergman (Olivia Cooke), starts to experience hearing loss during a show which he hopes will pass. Consulting a doctor for a hearing test, Ruben is told his hearing is deteriorating at a fast rate and he should avoid loud noises. Instead, Ruben goes back to playing and the next show kills his hearing for good.
Through his sponsor as a recovering addict, Ruben is put in touch with Joe (Paul Raci) a now deaf Vietnam vet who runs a rural haven for deaf recovering addicts. Ruben is reluctant to join as it means being alone, so Lou makes the decision for him, sends him to the retreat and returns home. Ruben eventually acclimatises to being deaf with help from Joe and the others, but he still yearns for an operation to return his hearing.
I’ve probably bored regular readers silly with my complaints about home media releases not having HOH subtitles, so it should be even less of a surprise that I had a personal interest in Sound Of Metal. On the one hand, I am disappointed that there is little metal and it is not the metal of my day, on the other this is an authentic look at the problems of hearing loss and deafness.
Although I am not deaf myself, my hearing is pretty bad and I have to wear two hearing aids that have been juiced up over the past decade or so as it continues to decline, but I can still relate to a lot of what is covered in this film. An apparent labour of love for writer and director Darius Marder that has been over a decade in the making, it is part standard melodrama, part revelation and education about hearing loss.
Like many young people, Ruben thinks he is indestructible so when the sound of Lou singing (or screaming) is more of a distorted whine in his ears, he ignores it as a passing thing. After consulting a pharmacist, Ruben is referred for a test, the results showing a loss of roughly 75% hearing. However, the doctor mentions it could be saved with cochlear implants but they could cost up to $80,000.
Clearly, Blackgammon aren’t that big otherwise, they wouldn’t be living in an RV and he’d be able to afford the operation. Once his hearing goes completely and he joins Joe at the back to basics retreat – i.e. no mobile phones – Ruben still hangs his hopes on having the implants, which becomes his undoing. Joe lost his hearing in Vietnam and lost his family to booze which is why he set up the retreat.
Becoming fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) Ruben integrates with the others, whilst Joe also has him sit in an empty room for a couple of hours to make Ruben comfortable with silence. Marder throws the audience into this world by eliminating sound many times throughout the film, so we can share this experience firsthand as it were, which I am sure will have some wondering they have gone deaf too.
Such simple tricks yet they heighten the sense of authenticity Marder is keen to portray. The sign language isn’t subtitled but often the gist of the conversations conducted this way can be deciphered, (a’la 2014 Ukrainian film The Tribe). The biggest effects is in the manipulation of the sounds Ruben can hear – the droning dissonance, muffled tones, and most impressive of all (slight spoiler) the metallic, tinny echoes of the processed sound post-implants, which I can attest to is very accurate.
Earlier, I said this was part melodrama, and this is where the film is at its weakest. The final thirty minutes are set in France where Ruben reconnects with a now “un metal” Lou living with her father, Richard (Mathieu Amalric). Compared to the naturalism of before, there is less conviction found in the destination than in the journey, the problem being the journey was the real story.
Fortunately, the denouement is profound and will resonate more with hearing impaired viewers who find silence quite often is a comfort not a curse. The Oscar buzz around Riz Ahmed’s performance is warranted, on display from the opening scene in a tiny sweaty club, bashing his drums with machine-like precision. Ahmed takes Ruben through the stages of adjustment to his impairment with empathy, nuance, and verisimilitude, not looking out of place with the deaf cast playing the members at the retreat.
Having spent eight months of drum lessons and learning ASL, nobody can accuse Ahmed or indeed Marder of not committing to delivering a realistic depiction of a world in which something as precious as sound is missing. Yet the film’s impact comes from making it clear that it doesn’t HAVE to be seen as a handicap and life can still continue; granted it is a problem for a musician but Ruben learns he can feel the music.
Oscar nominations alongside the nod for Ahmed’s acting have also been bestowed upon this film, for production aspects – including Best Sound which should be ironic but isn’t – and of course Best Picture. On this point I need to be very blunt – it is worthy from the standpoint of what it conveys about living without hearing and the authenticity of it, but other films will assuredly be stronger dramas.
Sound Of Metal is a powerful, invigorating film, its mission to be positive and sensitive educational value proving more satisfying than dramatic convention usually equated with prestige cinema.
Currently available on Amazon Prime
Rating – ****
Man In Black