Darius Marder’s first directing credit since 2008’s documentary, Loot, Sound of Metal is an astonishing accomplishment for both its long-nascent director and its British star, Riz Ahmed, for whom his turn as heavy metal drummer Ruben represents a career-best performance.
Seemingly as at home with American-led blockbusters as he is with British indie cinema, Ahmed is not just one of the brightest stars of his generation, he is among its finest actors, never more evidenced than as Ruben, a drummer who loses his hearing after years of punishing his eardrums on tour. Sound of Metal is foremost a humane portrayal of someone coming to terms with a radically new and unwelcome conception of self, but it is also partially a repudiation of the numerous inspirational videos – produced, invariably, for the sentimental reactions of hearing people – in which deaf people are ‘cured’ of their deafness with cochlear implants.
Cochlear implants doubtless improve the lives of many deaf and hard of hearing people, but their popular mythology as a miracle cure for the affliction of deafness is also problematic for people for whom society is the disabling component, not their deafness. And though it represents deaf experience about as authentically and sensitively as it can for an audience that is also invariably majority-hearing, Sound of Metal is at its heart really about the struggle to redefine oneself in the face of a massive and unexpected change.
Our perceptions of ourselves come equally from within and without, from our own interior experiences and from our projections of how the external world relates to us. Sound of Metal expresses this by mapping its combination of subjective close-ups and objective medium and wide shots to an inspired sound design that moves through the muffled, disorienting sounds of Ruben’s experience to the alienating clarity of his bandmate and partner, Lou (a transformative Olivia Cooke). This design is perhaps no more potent than in a distressing sequence where we hear, through Ruben’s ears, Lou’s piano duet with her semi-estranged father at a party.
The tragedy of Ruben is in chaining himself to his old way of being. When Lou pushed him to live for some weeks with a deaf community led by Joe (Paul Raci), his initial hostility outwardly transforms into acceptance, connecting with the group’s children as he teaches them music. Yet he remains set on the implants that he believes will restore his old life, even as he sacrifices everything in their pursuit. There is something of Blake’s ‘Eternity’ in this: “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise”. The moment of stillness that Joe urges Ruben is the joy kissed on the wing; Ruben’s redemption and his acceptance of his new self is contingent on his letting go of his old joy and achieving that moment of stillness.