A Lesson in Deafness: Sound of Metal (2020) - Reviewed


“We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. 
Everything is transfixed, only the light moves.”
― Leonora Carrington

So much of ourselves is rooted in the work we do. Introductions to strangers begin with explaining how we use our labor and the perceived status associated with it. Our labor serves as the foundation of our identities; a connection compounded for creative people. Since most creative work is sensory based, what happens when events beyond our control sever us one of our senses? Does the creator cease to be?

Writer/director Darius Marder’s latest film Sound of Metal explores deafness, identity, and their interdependence. The film stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, the drummer in a touring sludge metal band who loses his hearing. When it becomes clear to his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) Ruben’s deteriorating hearing is not only endangering his mental state but his sobriety, she helps find him a therapeutic program specializing in deaf recovering addicts. There Ruben meets program leader and alcoholic Joe (Paul Raci) who tasks Ruben with learning how to be deaf. 

At first glance, Sound of Metal appears to march to the same beat as the 2004 British mockumentary-drama It’s All Gone Pete Tong. However, where Tong treats deafness as an obstacle to overcome, Sound of Metal embraces it by focusing on the deaf community. In the 2019 TIFF Q&A, Marder remarked on his own learning process, “We think of deafness as a physical condition, but it became clear to me really quickly that it’s a culture.”  Marder's lesson is undeniable, as deaf culture is the central theme of the film. A major chunk of Sound of Metal is dedicated to Ruben's relationship to deafness and to other deaf people. Actress Chelsea Lee (Jenn), who is deaf herself, said during the TIFF Q&A the film's deaf actors spent a month working with Marder, serving as ambassadors for their community. The film's compassionate glimpse into their world is an obvious result of Marder integrating people like Lee into the production process. 

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

One does not need to point out why sound design is integral to the filmmaking process. However, in a deaf-centric film, strategic use of sound juxtaposed to its absence provides a bridge for the hearing to understand the deaf world. The film’s sound design team hyper fixates on the details of ordinary life. From brewing coffee to the crickets in an empty field, Sound of Metal’s attention to the minute serves as both a diary of loss and an illustration of the beauty in silence. In addition to this, the film's captioning for the hearing-impaired makes Sound of Metal not one, but two films, providing deaf audiences with an experience from the other side of the journey.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The icing on this cinematic cake is the visceral performance of Riz Ahmed. His ability to express intense vulnerability in his facial features saturates Sound of Metal in raw emotion. Darius Marder remarked how deaf culture is emotive because 50% of deaf communication takes place in your face. Marder said, "I don't think as hearing people we emote very much. People say 'How ya doing? Yep good.' but there is nothing in our face to signify goodness." So it is Riz Ahmed's nonverbal unmasking which allows the audience to experience Ruben's internal turmoil. This is further supported by Ahmed's on screen chemistry with Olivia Cooke and the deterioration of their codependent relationship. All of which is backed by cinematographer DaniĆ«l Bouquet's handheld camera work giving Sound of Metal a heightened sensory experience. 

Overall, Sound of Metal is a fiercely daring swan dive into our personal relationship with sound. It asks us to consider the emotions inside us hiding under its cover. Are we who we think we are when our world becomes wrapped in silence? Sound of Metal beckons us to find out. 4/5

-Dawn Stronski