If you’re familiar with my film reviews, I rarely comment on sound design and sound mixing, unless they profoundly elevate or detract from the film. “Sound of Metal”, which focuses on a heavy-metal drummer named Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) who loses his hearing, is one such film, as it relies heavily on its experimental sound design and expert sound mixing to communicate exactly what Ruben is hearing throughout the film, which creates a truly wonderful and unique experience.
Ruben is touring with his girlfriend of four years, Lou (Olivia Cooke), when during a performance, his hearing unexpectedly nosedives. Ahmed delivers a great performance, backed up by a meticulous focus on detail by director Darius Marder, that realistically and believably portrays how someone might react to going deaf. It’s a scary thing to have happen, and Ruben’s fears only worsen when the doctor confirms his hearing in both ears hovers at around 20 percent where they need to be, and are deteriorating rapidly. This understandably puts a strain on his relationship with Lou, who does her best to find a place for him to adapt to his new reality. The film does mention he can fix it with surgery, but the procedure is not covered by insurance and costs between $40,000-80,000 (American health insurance … as useless as ever). Concerned about his past with substance abuse, Lou finds a deaf community for recovering addicts, led by a man named Joe (Paul Raci; Fun fact: Raci is a certified ASL interpreter and a musician in real life).
Joe’s community is rigid as would be expected from a community that deals with substances abuse, and while Ruben struggles with his deafness, it eventually becomes a good fit for him, though he eventually finds that he needs personal freedom and contact with Lou, which is not allowed, which makes him incompatible with Joe’s vision for the community. This is only compounded by the fact that Ruben isn’t sure he wants to be deaf all his life, with surgery an option that’s within his reach, which is a major problem, as Joe’s community is focused on treating deafness as not a disease, but a way of life. Because of this, there is always a rift between Joe and Ruben, but we understand where they’re coming from. Ruben grew up in a world of hearing where his literal livelihood was dependent on producing music, and he needs to find something close to normal to be happy, which Joe can’t provide him with, but he can offer him a completely new life. Yet for his inflexibility, Joe has good reasons for being so strict, as everything he does is informed by years of experience, and you get a real sense that he might have been too flexible in the past, and paid the price for it, especially considering how dangerous newly-acquired deafness can be for those with pre-existing substance abuse problems.
This is a light spoiler, but Joe and Ruben’s relationship reaches its breaking point when Ruben decides to sell his and Lou’s RV in order to fund his surgery, and Joe has legitimate heartbreak, especially considering that Ruben had become a popular figure in his community, teaching people to hear and and enjoy music through vibrations. But because he chose to fix his deafness rather than embrace it, Joe has no choice but to kick him out.
This triggers the third act, which is the best part of the film, as Ruben gets his implants installed, and tries to find his way back to Lou, who changed a lot in their time apart. He ends up confronting her dad, Richard Berger (Mathieu Amalric), before she gets home, and the two have an emotional scene that is probably the best in the film, as out of nowhere Berger admits he despised Ruben for years for stealing Lou away from her, but has come to appreciate him because he gave her a place to go after her mother died. Amalric is only briefly in the film, but his performance is so strong he steals the show, and his revelations enhance and deepens Lou and Ruben’s relationship, which comes full circle with an earned, tender moment at the film’s penultimate sequence. Though Marder intentionally leaves the book open as to whether or not Ruben will carry on with his implants or with the deaf community in the film’s final scenes, which is fitting, as it doesn’t hold either path above the other.
This is one of the best films of the year, for its razor-sharp and meticulous direction; its fantastic cast; its vulnerable, human moments that leave an impact on you; and its expert use of sound design and sound mixing that quite literally shows and doesn’t tell us exactly what is going through Ruben’s head.
“Sound of Metal” gets a 9.5/10