Hannah Strong


Sound of Metal – first look review

Riz Ahmed is on career best mode in this sensitive portrait of a metal drummer losing his hearing.

There’s a large part of my life that I spent convinced I was broken. Sometimes I still wonder if that’s true, but thankfully it now doesn’t happen as often, because I take medication and my brain chemistry has altered sufficiently so that the lows don’t seem quite as low, and the highs aren’t so high that I’m liable to do something reckless.

There are vast stretches of time I can’t account for – lost weeks, months, years. I thought it was my memory, but I think it’s more likely self-preservation. We hide the things that hurt us deep down inside. We do our best to avoid interrogating them.

As this is a first look review, allow me the luxury of being a bit personal: something odd happened to me while watching Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. I felt this strange sense of anxiety and frustration needling at me for almost all of its 140 minute runtime. I shot out at the moment the credits started rolling. I texted a friend a glib remark about the characterisation of the only female character. And then, walking back to my Airbnb, I thought about what I’d just seen some more, and burst into tears.

In Sound of Metal, Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, an addict who’s turned his life around. He’s a drummer in a metal band with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), and they live a nomadic life touring the States in an Airstream trailer. Their professional and personal relationship is jeopardised when Ruben discovers he is losing his hearing, and Lou begins to worry that he’s sliding towards a relapse. Together they seek a solution, be it surgery to try and correct his hearing loss, or a new support system made up of people from the deaf community who can help him come to terms with his situation.

There’s this question that hangs over the film, nagging at Ruben as he tries to make sense of his deafness: if you could change this perceived disability, would you do it? There are people in Ruben’s life who try to help him see the positives, inviting him into their community and teaching him “how to be deaf”. But Ruben clings to his old life, eager to return to the way things were.

Both Ruben and Lou are vulnerable creatures, utterly devoted to each other as they are introduced. But sacrifices have to be made, and both are changed by Ruben’s new circumstances. Heartbreak seems all but inevitable. And it is, when you’re totally sideswiped by something like that.

The performance Ahmed gives is arguably a career best: tender; frustrated and furious; never evoking any sort of pity. Ruben wants to live his life on his own terms, and fuck all the rest. And that means making mistakes. But there’s also a sense he’s trying his best. At his side, Cooke’s character is perhaps a tad underwritten but, as always, she is a joy to watch, and the chemistry between her and Ahmed is unmistakable. They’re joined by a cast comprised largely from deaf actors, which feels like a landmark moment in disability representation.

Just as important is the intricate and outstanding sound design which, as well as simulating the disorientating experience of losing one’s hearing, highlights the melody and noise that hearing-people often take for granted: the whir of a blender; the slow drip of a coffee pot; even speaking on a mobile phone.

Communication becomes a source of frustration for Ruben as he is so used to expressing himself through music. How do you find any sense of identity when the source of it is snatched away without warning? Reflecting Ruben’s new state of being, caught between the hearing and non-hearing worlds, large stretches of sign language go untranslated. For the hearing audience who don’t speak sign language, we’re as lost as he is.

I go back and forth on whether or not I’d take the offer, if it existed. If I could take away the thing that’s caused me so much pain, would I still be who I am today? Ultimately it feels like such a personal question, such a deep, hard, unknowable hypothetical. Sound of Metal is confronting in a way that I couldn’t have possibility expected – a symphony of sound and silence.

It’s devastating and hopeful in the same breath, anchored by Ahmed’s remarkable turn and the technical ambition at its core. Of course it could be argued that it hits hardest when you’ve experienced a similar sort of personal nadir, but this doesn’t alter how accomplished a debut it is for Marder, who nails it right out of the gate.

Published 15 Aug 2019

Tags: Darius Marder Riz Ahmed Toronto Film Festival

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