Before he had started to notice his hearing deteriorate Ruben (Riz Ahmed) had been clean off heroin for four years, since around the same time he started to date his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke). Ruben is the drummer of the duo’s heavy metal band, Blackgammon. The pair drive around the country together in their RV, playing gig after gig every night in a different city. Usually, Ruben starts his mornings off with turmeric smoothies, squats, and slow dances with Lou around their tiny kitchen – hardly the fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle you’d expect. One day, Ruben awakes to near silence. Everything from the blitzing blender to the booming record player are all now nothing but muffled and distant sounds. After a panicked visit to the pharmacist and a few examinations, a sombre doctor notifies Ruben that – because of his years of violent drumming and being exposed to blaring music – his hearing is deteriorating rapidly. Ruben is told this decline in hearing will only continue and that the hearing he has lost will never return. Directed by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal is a sharply brazen and perceptive delve into living with disability and addiction, and how to deal with the constantly shifting and ever-changing human experience.
Photo © Amazon Studios
As Ruben struggles to come to terms with his hearing loss, Lou quickly notices that Ruben is potentially heading for a relapse and arranges for Ruben to attend a rehabilitation programme that specialises in providing addiction support to those living with hearing impairments. Arriving at the rehabilitation camp, Ruben is greeted by the friendly Joe (Paul Raci) who oversees the running of the centre. Joe is a veteran who lost his hearing after a bomb exploded next to him in Vietnam. Talking through a machine that translates audio to text, Joe explains to Ruben the ethos and rules of the camp. He explains that the camp is a solution to the troubles of the mind not the restrictions of the body and that there are strict rules banning phones and contact with the outside world.
Photo © Amazon Studios
At the camp, everyone is assigned their relevant roles – cooking, cleaning, etc. Joe tells Ruben his entire role is ‘learning to be deaf’ – not an assignment that Ruben is fond of as he continuously fantasises about shelling out $80,000 on hearing implants. One of the main focuses of Sound of Metal is examining the barriers disabled individuals face. Much like the rehabilitation centre, the film aligns itself with the social model of disability – the notion that individuals are more disabled by barriers put in place by society than their physical ailments. For example, Ruben is not disabled because he cannot hear – he is disabled as the vast majority of society are not equipped to communicate with Ruben. It’s the idea that disability would less so exist if society knew how to address and provide for those living with certain conditions. When Ruben first joins the camp, he finds himself naturally isolated and lost. All the members communicate in sign language, something Ruben knows nothing about and he is left guessing words and copying signals in an attempt to understand. He struggles in the same way as someone who is deaf would struggle in the wider world communicating with people who mainly use audible ways of communication. At this point in the film, there are no subtitles or explanations for the audience either. Those of us who are ignorant to sign language are just as lost as Ruben. As the story continues and Ruben learns to sign, Ruben starts to communicate with others at ease and subtitles are provided for those in the audience who previously could not understand. The barriers to access have been lifted all around and the audience grows bit by bit closer to understanding the obstacles facing Ruben.
Photo © Amazon Studios
Another leading theme that runs throughout Sound of Metal is the notion of grief and the inability to freeze time. Ruben does not just mourn the loss of his hearing but also the loss of his entire lifestyle; his girlfriend, his friends, and his one true passion in life – music. Ruben goes through many changes on his journey – exploring the full five stages of grief but not always in a linear manner. He flits back and forth, accepting his loss of hearing and enjoying his new life and then making impulsive and rash decisions to try and ‘solve’ his disability in the hopes of gaining his old life back. However, as life goes, Ruben finds that there is no sure way to bring back or even truly replicate the past and even when you try to, you must sacrifice a lot of what you have already gained in the now. Marder beautifully plays with the idea of constantly not being able to fully grasp what’s in front of you and only realising its worth once it’s too late. It’s a hard lesson on how a lack of respect and acknowledgement for the present will always lead to an insatiable desire for the past. In one sorrowful scene, Joe urges Ruben to grasp onto stillness as it is ‘that place that will never abandon you’ – advice Ruben recklessly ignores.
Amongst this push-and-pull turmoil of Ruben’s continuous struggles with painful nostalgia and his inability to replicate the past, Ruben learns the lesson of making decisions – or mistakes – and having to live with them and their consequences. A story about navigating the barriers and obstacles that come alongside disability, Sound of Metal is a bittersweet and unpretentious look at loss, yearning, and learning how to mourn the continuous movement of time.
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Written by Abi Aherne
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.
About View of the ArtsView of the Arts is run by female arts journalists and works with a diverse team of writers and film critics.
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