Sound of Metal is an intense movie-watching experience, not just because it focuses on a heavy metal drummer. This film transcends its simple premise to deliver important messages in a captivating, and innovative way.
Movies about music tend to be loud. They belt out the tunes and have the audience swaying in their seats and singing along. They tend to be musicals with fun choreographed dancing, or else intimate dramas about the glamour of show biz and the toll it can take. Sound of Metal is an intimate drama about music, but it isn’t very loud. In fact, this film about a metal drummer who suddenly loses his sense of hearing isn’t really about the music at all.
Instead, the film’s utilization of music is a gateway to explore how easy it is for everyone to take their health, and their life, for granted. Unlike other films which brush on the topic of music, this one does not require you to be a fan. The use of metal music in this film is a representation of all of us being busy living our frantic, hectic lives. We never take the opportunity to stop and appreciate what we have, until it is too late. This makes Sound of Metal a film which has widespread appeal despite its heavier leanings.
The film focuses on Ruben, who is the drummer of a heavy metal duo with his girlfriend Lou. While on the road touring, Ruben suddenly loses his hearing. At first he thinks it is temporary, and tries to play through it, but it begins to impact his performance which makes him very frustrated. Ruben, a former drug addict, becomes more and more angry as he seeks a quick solution. Lou is forced to cancel the rest of their tour in fear of Lou relapsing due to the stress. They find a community of deaf people who try to help Ruben, but he isn’t ready to accept, and acts out.
At the beginning of the film, when we first meet Ruben, he is in his element. The aggression of the music he makes seems to be what he had used to help him get over his addiction. He is constantly moving, getting up early, working on himself. He has found a way to live his life and defeat his demons. But when he loses his hearing, that approach to his life is in jeopardy. He no longer has that avenue of aggression available to him, and as a result he feels useless and helpless. The film follows him as he has to find a new way to live his life. And as a recovered addict, it is almost as if he is going through the process for the second time.
That observation is what sets Sound of Metal apart from other, similar films. It isn’t just about ending an addiction. Although the film doesn’t go through the details, it is apparent that Ruben overcame his previous addiction problem through his music, and his relationship with Lou. Both of them had previous struggles, and the band they made together is what was now helping them get their lives back together. But the film shows us that no matter how strong you think you are, you can’t overcome all problems. It is about not only having the strength to overcome a disease, but having the strength to welcome the help of other people in order to do so.
In the case of this film, that help comes from a community of deaf people. Ruben is at first very reluctant to accept what they are offering him. His loss of hearing seems like something that can be fixed. He doesn’t want to see himself as a broken person, which is how he sees these deaf people. He finds out about an operation which can potentially bring back his hearing. He sees that as his way out, to get back to the life he had before, rather than dealing with his deep-seated problem which is about more than just his loss of hearing.
Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, and he is incredible. He has this vulnerable aggressiveness to him that is absolutely perfect to the role. There are times when he acts out, but the crux to the performance is the way he communicates his pain through the expression on his face and the way he conducts himself. He is every bit believable in this role, dealing with the complicated emotions associated with this difficult situation.
What the film also does very well is placing its audience into the shoes of its main character. Part of the reason Ahmed’s performance resonates so well is because for much of the film the audience feels the same way that he does. As the story progresses, it becomes a very tense, and unnerving experience. The filmmakers use a lot of sound editing techniques to essentially demonstrate Ruben’s condition to the audience. This allows us to understand and experience his condition along with him.
More importantly, with the sound purposefully and effectively cutting out, director Darius Marder effectively shifts the focus of the film to the visual realm. Here, he takes the time to craft Ruben’s psyche during this transition in his life. We see moments of him sitting alone, contemplating between scenes. The camera will be in his face, isolating him from the world. It also puts focus on the acting and storytelling without dialogue.
As Ruben visits the deaf community, he is initially an outsider. He doesn’t understand sign language, and the way these people conduct their lives is initially threatening to him because he does not want to change. But, the film does an incredible job of showing their love and commitment for each other. As the film progresses, Ahmed becomes part of the group rather than a reluctant outsider. Seeing his character transform from this harsh and rugged individual to one who finds out how he can help others as much as they can help him is truly special.
And not only does the film do a tremendous job of depicting the deaf community, it shows us how they are not at all different than anyone else. This is something important which Ruben must realize, that his loss of hearing is not something which can restrict his life. Instead, it is an opportunity for him to grow, and as some scenes demonstrate, find his true potential. The film’s message is not about inability, but finding the best way for us to tap into our own abilities. The journey is not an easy one, but it is a rewarding one.
Just reading the synopsis of the film, I had connotations of inferior films dealing with loss/addiction and full of melodrama. Sound of Metal easily exceeded my low expectations. Everything about this film is special. From the way it deals with the fragility of our existence, to its depiction of the deaf community there is a lot of impactful emotion. I especially appreciated how the film’s story is applicable to many challenges of life, not just losing your hearing. Add in competent direction, incredible sound mixing, and the best performance yet from Riz Ahmed, and you have one of the best films of the year so far.