Movie Review: Sound of Metal (2020) - A heavy-metal drummer loses his hearing in this visceral film

Sound of Metal left me speechless. The new film by writer/director Darius Marder highlights a musician's loss of hearing and how he learns to cope with his new reality. The performances are searing, and the sound design is frighteningly accurate in representing the muted, distorted sounds of a world experienced through hearing loss. As someone who has grown up with a hearing disability, this film affected me deeply. I have undergone countless operations on my ears, burst eardrums, innumerable hearing tests, and fitted with various listening devices. Watching someone on-screen lose his hearing and contend with his options for moving forward with life was heart-wrenching. But what this film accomplishes amongst its authenticity is the human experience of coping with change so significant that it alters life's direction.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a young, heavy metal drummer and the film opens at a gig with him smashing his drum kit while his girlfriend of four years, Lou (Olivia Cooke), screams out lyrics. The next morning, he wakes beside Lou in his caravan, turns on the coffee maker, does push-ups in the tight corridor between his kitchen and dining table, and blends a fresh juice. Each sound is sharp and direct, with every drop of coffee accentuated with clarity. Later he dances with Lou in a beautiful moment that immediately establishes the couple's closeness before driving to their next destination. While playing the next gig, Ruben's hearing vanishes mid-song.

The following morning Ruben visits an audiologist who tells him that 80% of his hearing is gone and will never come back. There is a cochlear implant option, but they are costly, and it won't repair the hearing already lost. Ruben smokes a cigarette, and Lou realizes that he is close to relapsing, so she calls his sponsor, who sets Ruben up with a meeting at a deaf community for addicts. When they arrive, Ruben meets the director, Joe (Paul Raci), who informs him that staying in the community requires relinquishing all contact with the outside world to fully immerse in learning how to use sign language and attending group meetings. Of course, Ruben is hesitant, but the next morning when Lou wakes up to Ruben smashing his drum gear in a desperate release of aggravation, she decides to leave so he can get the help he needs.

Ruben and Lou's characterization is vital to the film's atmosphere and is achieved through the wardrobe and makeup, which consistently highlight their voices. With eyebrows bleached and self-harm scars running up her forearms, Lou understands trauma and can read Ruben with just a look. Her relationship with him started when he got sober, and Olivia Cooke's sincere performance highlights Lou's selflessness in appealing for his overall health. On the other hand, Ruben, with his bleached hair, tattooed body, and sleeveless shirts, walks with the swagger of a musician with wide-eyed unrest. Riz Ahmed's quietest moments are his most disturbing as the bags under his eyes weigh heavily on his addictive temperament, always looking for a way out. The performances, combined with a script by Darius Marder, Derek Cianfrance, and Abraham Marder, have accomplished a film instinctive in its storytelling and overall design.

Ultimately, this film's unique experience is how sound becomes a character in the movie. When we begin, Ruben and Lou are surrounded by the drums' heaviness, coupled with Lou's aggressive vocalization of her lyrics. When Ruben loses the sound, he also loses his sense of self. His first night in the community is experienced in total silence as he sits at the dining table surrounded by a dozen other members. At the same time, Darius Marder reintegrates sound for the audience, so we hear the dishes clanking, hands clapping, and pounding on the table, informing how the group communicates and acquires attention. There is no need to caption what they say through sign language because the audience can infer meaning by how they react and communicate.

Admittedly, it was the use of sound in this film that affected me the most. The experience of losing sound versus using assistive listening devices is incredible in this film as I've never been able to get used to the abundance of sound through hearing aids. When I wear them, I struggle to locate each sound source, and I confuse my footsteps with someone following me. In social settings, instead of using the devices, I sit as close to a wall as possible, so the voices I need to hear are more concentrated. Truthfully, I often avoid social situations because wearing hearing aids means amplifying all the noises around me, while not wearing them means I'm more likely to miss most conversations. I ask people to repeat themselves so frequently that I give up and have withdrawn from engaging in discussions from a young age. Sound of Metal showcased this dichotomy between adapting to your situation and avoiding change. The last time I saw my audiologist, he told me that it wouldn't be an option to wear hearing aids when I reach forty. As I become more aware of what I miss every day, my reluctance to accept the inevitable comes at a price.

There are moments in this film that highlight this journey. At one point, Lou sings a beautiful duet with her father, who sits playing the piano. Party guests stand mesmerized by the beautiful arrangement as Ruben watches nearby, looking as though he hears the same melodies as everyone else. But as the sound morphs into what Ruben hears, it's just a distortion of ivory keys smacking against metal, creating deafening chaos in his head. This scene is contrasted with earlier in the film as Ruben and the students at the school stand around a grand piano with their hands touching the instrument's surface. They can feel the beauty of the music through the vibrations because they're relationship with music is unique. As a piano player myself, I remember using my hearing aids while playing and breaking down because the notes sounded vastly different, with sharp edges and a hollow tune creating havoc in my ears.

But everything is new for Ruben, and what the community tries to teach him is that the future doesn't change, but instead, you adapt. It's devastating to watch his progress and how he tries to maintain his lifestyle, but ultimately it's human because he needs to confront his condition head-on and in the most personal ways.

The truth of this story is why I love cinema and Sound of Metal is an absolute achievement in its honest portrait of a man contending with his loss of sound.

Now available to stream on Amazon Prime.