Sound of Metal Film Review: Musician Struggles With Sudden Deafness

Enjoying its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Sound of Metal is a propulsive and devastating film led by a physically haunting performance from Riz Ahmed. 

Director and co-writer Darius Marder—who shares a screenwriting credit on 2013’s Place Beyond the Pines—serves up a gritty, grounded exploration of humanity bubbling within characters barely scraping by.

Portraying Rueben, a noise metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing, actor Riz Ahmed is sensational. Wolfish and lean, he balances manic energy in the musical performances with vulnerable confusion as his hearing and world begin to fall apart.

For Marder “It’s been about eight years since I began writing Sound of Metal as a scripted feature,” he said. “The project actually began years earlier as a collaboration with my dear friend and frequent writing partner Derek Cianfrance. At that time, it was an exploratory, hybrid documentary involving a real couple in a Metal band. The seed of that project grew into the film it is today.”

Riz Ahmed plays a drummer who goes deaf in the film Sound of Metal.
Riz Ahmed plays a drummer who goes deaf in the film Sound of Metal.

Sound of Metal Review

If music and Ahmed’s physical performance is what grounds Reuben so realistically in the world that he inhabits, it’s the loss of his hearing that jars us awake to the fluidity with which life frequently moves.

When Reuben experiences hearing loss for the first time, it’s violent and painful, moving from mundane – a popping noise not unlike the experience of flying – to excruciatingly confusing within moments. 

Reuben and Lou are moments away from sound-checking their latest gig when Reuben experiences the popping sensation – and Sound Designer Nicklas Becker keeps us with him the entire time. Suddenly it seems as if Rueben is underwater, voices are far away and murky. The panic he experiences as he realizes that this isn’t a momentary thing, further washes out those around him until he can barely hear anything at all. 

In seeing a specialist, Reuben is told the hearing he has lost isn’t coming back without the aid of an expensive cochlear implant, and he should expect further deterioration. One day he’s sitting behind his kit, rhythmically putting up his defences. The next, silence. 

Once Reuben’s world goes quiet Ahemd portrays his confusion and anger towards the situation with baffling honesty. He is living in silence and so therefore so are we. 

“It was important to me that the film was genuine and visceral in its approach, and that this story provides a window into a culture and way of life that encapsulates so many people: Deaf, hard of hearing, and CODA (Children of Deaf Adults),” said Marder.

Ahmed went so far as to wear custom devices that emitted white noise, “Allowing him to experience the closest approximation to progressive deafness that we could simulate, including the inability to hear even his own voice,” Marder said. 

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Musical Chops

Ahmed brings a level of authenticity to the musical performances that stems from “The sort of commitment to the process that is frankly rare in an industry that likes to stack projects and ‘stay busy,’” Marder said. “Four months prior to shooting, Riz moved to Brooklyn to work with me, learn the drums from scratch and learn ASL by working intimately with the Brooklyn Deaf community. He sank himself into a deeply emotional and physical process that I think he would describe as life-changing,” he said. 

While this type of commitment isn’t surprising, Ahmed’s honesty behind the kit is. He brings the audience into Rebuen’s world through a distinct set of physical rhythms and patterns that appear unpredictable and wild while exacting complete control over his surroundings.

He has to, since, alongside his girlfriend, Lou, portrayed with tender determination by Olivia Cook, Reuben is barely hanging on. Finding each other shortly after Reuben found sobriety from heroin, the duo love each other fiercely and the film breathes air into their relationship in remarkable ways. 

Working with a wonderful screenplay full of looks, glances, unspoken motivations and frustrations, we learn more about Reuben through his intrinsic connection with the world than we do with anything he actually says. 

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Atmospheric and Cultural Tension 

What’s fascinating about Sound Of Metal are the choices that Rueben is faced with. After Lou drops him off in the middle of a forest with Joe, a man operating a 13-step recovery group within a remote Deaf community, the choices become evident. 

Joe, portrayed by actor Paul Raci is astonishingly realized. Aside from the script, this stems from Raci personal life experience, being the son of a Deaf parent – his empathy towards the frustration that comes with feeling unable to fully express oneself is poignant. 

On the edge of relapse, Joe convinces Lou that the best thing for Reuben would be to leave him in this remote community for an extended period of time without access to the outside world. And as Reuben discovers a new way of living in Joe and his home full people in similar circumstances, we are faced with Reuben’s dilemma. 

It is through Joe, that the audience is introduced to a Deaf culture that has embraced their circumstances, not seeing it as a disability or disadvantage, but simply life as they know it. The tension and Reuben’s dilemma stems from their belief that surgical repair is a betrayal of their beliefs and therefore a betrayal of the community. 

It is here, with the tension of Lou and ostensibly his old world moving on without him, and his new world pulling him in a direction at once confusing but real, that dominates the back half of the film. Overcoming his initial reluctance, Reuben quickly picks up ASL sign language, returning to “school,” and sitting amongst younger children learning this about this world just as he is.  

When Reuben eventually makes his decision, Sound of Metal doesn’t present it as right or wrong, but simply as a decision. Without spoiling anything, Marder and, ultimately, the film, are more concerned with ebb and flow of life and how we comprehend the changes forced upon us. Reuben is not blamed or shown as one thing or another. 

Sound of Metal

Darius Marder establishes a strong cinematic voice with his debut feature, about a heavy-metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing and is forced to re-evaluate his place in the world.

Date Created: September 6, 2019

Runtime: 130 min

  • Genre:
  • Drama
  • Producers:
  • Bert Hamelinck,
  • Sacha Ben Harroche,
  • Bill Benz,
  • Kathy Benz,
  • Director:
  • Darius Marder
  • Writers:
  • Cast:
  • Riz Ahmed,
  • Olivia Cooke,
  • Paul Raci,
  • Mathieu Amalric,
  • Lauren Ridloff,
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