Sound Of Metal

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sound Of Metal
"Ahmed, who has long deserved this kind of opportunity, really shows what he's capable of."

One of the things about disability that's rarely discussed is the way that it slows life down, forcing one to take more time over everything. There can be positive aspects to this, if one has the right kind of personality for it, but even then, the adjustment is difficult. All the more so for a man like Ruben (Riz Ahmed), who is used to living life in the moment. A heavy metal drummer involved in a passionate relationship with singer/guitarist Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben focuses on the present in order to escape the legacy of his past as an addict. When sudden hearing loss turns his world upside down, he's in serious danger of losing the recovery he's fought for.

Many people with hearing impairments don't regard themselves as disabled, but for Ruben that's very much the way he feels. It's an experience that suddenly interferes with his ability to work, right in the middle of a tour. His initial conviction that it must be temporary, that there must be a cure, leads to disappointment. Directed to a community of deaf people with experience of difficult pasts like his, he initially rebels, hating the idea of being separated from Lou even for a few weeks. This, however, could be his only opportunity to learn new communication skills and find support from people who understand what he's going through. What he needs to come to terms with is that reclaiming his life will not mean everything going back to the way it was before.

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The thoroughness of writer/director Darius Marder's research really pays off in a film that has been warmly received by the Deaf community. There are numerous Deaf actors present and this makes for natural, energetic scenes of signed conversation as well as positioning Ruben very much as an outsider who in struggling to find his feet. The confidence he displays onstage and in every aspect of his life on the road is suddenly replaced by fear and uncertainty; when he most needs to talk, he's least able to do so. it's a dream role for an actor and Ahmed, who has long deserved this kind of opportunity, really shows what he's capable of, all the more impressive because his work never comes across as Oscar-bait. It's a complex, involved performance. His mastery of drumming and signing aside, and the physical transformation that accompanies the former, it's the quietness of what he delivers that really makes an impression.

Cooke, for her part, is also on fine form. She too took on the physical demands of performing as a musician, and she summons up a passionate intensity which makes us believe in the core relationship and what these people - both with troubled histories - have meant to each other, but she's able to show more range as their connection shifts with Ruben's sudden vulnerability, and as their experiences whilst separated change them both. Recovering from addiction often focuses on finding stability and a fresh sense of what is normal, but this is a film about facing up to the shifting currents of life, the fact that nothing can really stay the same. There's a sense that Ruben's experience simply speeds up changes they were going to go through anyway. Like many former addicts, they have a degree of immaturity that is endearing even though it makes them hard work, and in that sense this is a coming of age film, observing their passage into full adulthood.

There's a great deal here about the stages of grief that accompany a developing impairment, and the desire to fight it that often becomes self-destructive. Marder makes room for multiple points of view, showing us the new opportunities opening up to Ruben but respecting his hesitation, his yearning to find his own way in the world. Viewers with no knowledge of hearing impairment will come away with a much better idea of how to avoid making life harder for those affected (without ever feeling as if they've sat through a lesson), but, most importantly, will find it easier to recognise their humanity. There are some odd little omissions, however, most notably the use of mobile phones, which are increasingly popular as an alternative to signing. These are banned within the community (which prevents them from becoming a prop), but it's strange that Ruben never thinks of using them elsewhere.

It's impossible to write about this film without mentioning its stunning sound design and the excellent work from the whole sound team. This has an immersive effect on the viewer from very early on, encouraging identification with Ruben and introducing us to what will be, to most, a whole new way of perceiving the world. It's elegantly put together, exploring a range of different experiences, and is deservedly winning awards.

A thoughtful, intelligent film with a great deal to say, Sound Of Metal is something special. Catch it if you can.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2021
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Sound Of Metal packshot
A heavy-metal drummer's life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.

Director: Darius Marder

Writer: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridlof, Matthieu Amalric

Year: 2019

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: US

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