AFI 2020 – ‘Sound of Metal’ as a Study in Healing

The portrayal of disabilities in media is akin to a game of Russian roulette. Portrayals can range from slightly tone-deaf to some form of maudlin plea to downright vile demonization depending on what disability the film, show, or book focuses on. Rarely, if ever, does the disabled person in question receive any form of development, and instead they’re used as a learning tool for other characters on how to treat someone.

Sound of Metal, the feature directorial debut of Darius Marder, follows heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) as he struggles to adapt to his severe hearing loss. What could easily become a sob story is a multifaceted study into someone trying to healthily cope with a major alteration in lifestyle. While the run time is a bit bloated and the second act is extremely slow, the character studies of the three leads keep the film engaging.

While I can’t speak for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community, Marder does the most to accommodate and treat the Deaf characters with grace. The film is completely subtitled to aid Deaf or Hard of Hearing viewers. The Deaf side characters aren’t reduced to their disability and create and live in an independent community, and– the most effective part of the film– is the point of hearing sound design. Much like in Mike Flanagan’s Hush, the choice to use point-of-hearing puts the audience closer to Ruben making us feel more connected to him. Being able to hear as Ruben helps the hearing audience see how frustrating it is to suddenly lose an integral part of the career he built for himself. It makes the scenes where Ruben’s rage manifests in full all the more compelling. The film spends the bulk of its runtime following Ruben’s learning curves during his time at the deaf community; it’s effective in illustrating how frustrating coping to a new life by repeating Ruben’s new daily schedule, but it does make the second act of the film a bit slow.

The crux of Sound of Metal rests on the relationships between Ruben, his girlfriend Liv (Olivia Cooke), and Joe (Paul Raci) the head of the deaf community Ruben is coerced into spending his time post-diagnosis. All three are in recovery: Ruben is four years sober from heroin, Liv is recently clean from self-harm, and Joe used some less than savory coping mechanisms after his time in the Vietnam War. Marder wants us to see how Ruben’s now stable existence, a stable job, a loving girlfriend, and his long-earned sobriety, is devastated by his sudden 80% hearing loss. He’s obsessed with getting back to normal despite the insane financial commitment of a double cochlear implant. Liv becomes increasingly worried about Ruben’s destructive behavior culminating in her forcibly sending Ruben to Joe’s deaf community. It’s made abundantly clear that both Liv and Joe genuinely care about Ruben despite his attempts to push them away. Ahmed and Cooke give heart-wrenchingly realistic performances of a couple trying to balance each other’s health and safety along with their own needs for stability. Marder’s characterization of flawed humans looking to be better first highlighted in his screenplay for The Place Beyond the Pines still works just as well in Sound of Metal: the leads are far from perfect, they’re all trying to abandon horrible vices and heal.

Sound of Metal portrays a concept that could easily become a stereotypical feel-good tale with complex reality. The Deaf community isn’t reduced to some sob story, and Ruben’s acquired disability isn’t treated as a weakness. Instead, the main cast receive developed characterization making them more than the ghosts of their past. While the time following Ruben’s adjustment period can become repetitive and drawn-out, Sound of Metal is overall a solid outing with characters as real as they come.

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