When asked "what is your biggest fear?", we tend to draw from extremities. It is often either something small and irrational like a fear of the dark or a harmless animal, or an existential fear like death and where we go after. Despite how integral it is to everyday life and the ableist, on-the-go society we live in, very rarely is hearing loss noted as a major fear.
However, after seeing 'Sound of Metal', the incredible debut feature film by Darius Marder, I can safely say that I will be answering this question a bit differently from now on.
I may not be a heavy metal drummer like Ruben (Riz Ahmed, 'Nightcrawler', 'Venom'), 'Sound of Metal's' lead character, but it's hard to watch his hearing slip away without feeling it cut you to the core. Ruben's desperation to stop his impending deafness is amplified as it threatens to take his career, his relationship with girlfriend/bandmate/roommate Lou (Olivia Cooke, 'Ready Player One'), and his identity. The mere idea of losing one's sense of purpose with no possibility of recovery would be a lot to take for anyone, and in an attempt to at least save his sobriety, Lou coerces Ruben into staying at a sober house for the deaf.
A hair-raising first act sets the stage for what could be an exhausting, 130-minute assault on the senses and the emotions, opening on a stunning live performance from Ahmed and Cooke shot on 35mm film. For the first half-hour, you would be forgiven for thinking 'Sound of Metal' is a horror film; however, the monster from the outset is Ruben's own self-destructive tendencies and not the hearing loss itself. Thanks to some stunning editing, hard cuts to a loud bar that Ruben has decided to play despite his doctor's warning are so jarring that I found myself crying out of frustration and heartbreak. It isn't until Ruben reluctantly takes up residence at the sober house that the film lets some silence and peace in, as he inches closer to accepting his predicament.
Best known for his screenwriting work on 2012's excellent 'The Place Beyond the Pines', director and co-writer Darius Marder takes that same muted gloom - as well as Ahmed's striking tattoos and bleached hair lifted straight from Ryan Gosling's lead performance - and transforms it into something truly haunting. Even if Ruben loses the sense of who he is along with his hearing, no such thing is possible for the audience. The entire film is from Ruben's perspective - never pulling away for a B-plot - and Ahmed features in every single scene and in almost every single shot. Ruben's terror, often masked by anger and denial, has nowhere to hide when Ahmed's face is front and centre. It is a confronting way to tell a story and certainly a daunting prospect for an actor, but in such able hands as Ahmed's, he tackles the most complex of moments with breathtaking skill.
Riz Ahmed has consistently turned in great performances throughout his career, but his performance as Ruben by far his absolute best and the ever-growing acclaim around this role is nothing short of inevitable. In addition to learning drums and American Sign Language (ASL) for the role, Ahmed was also fitted with custom earpieces that emitted white noise to the point where the actor couldn't even hear his own voice during takes. It makes for a visceral, raw performance from an actor made to feel just as out of control as his character. Even writing this review, It's difficult to accurately describe just how captivating Ahmed is; he needs to be seen to be believed.
'Sound of Metal' is, first and foremost, a character study of a recovering heroin addict - but it is also an exploration of grief and profound loss.
The recent controversy surrounding Sia's decision to cast a neurotypical actor as a character on the autism spectrum in her new film 'Music' has drawn a spotlight on accurately representing mental and physical handicaps in film. Perhaps what makes 'Sound of Metal' so special is how it represents and respects the experiences of the deaf community. Marder fought studio pressure to ensure deaf characters were played by actors within the deaf and hard of hearing community, and his persistence well and truly pays off thanks to a stunning performance by Paul Raci, a Vietnam veteran who grew up with deaf parents. Raci's character Joe acts as a guide for Ruben, telling him repeatedly that his deafness is not the end of a meaningful existence or a "problem" to fix. The film's original presentation is also entirely captioned in English to include the deaf and hard of hearing community. It also works as a creative choice, adding to the inevitability of Ruben's acceptance of his circumstance and attempting to remove the stigma Ruben associates with deafness.
'Sound of Metal' is, first and foremost, a character study of a recovering heroin addict - Ruben's addictions shift throughout the film as he runs out of time and options to save his hearing - but it is also an exploration of grief and profound loss. In fact, it is perhaps the most nuanced exploration grief I have ever seen on screen that does not directly involve death. Marder's commitment to authenticity threatened the film's entire existence, making some scenes incredibly difficult to film and drawing pre-production out by years, but it is this commitment that makes 'Sound of Metal' so incredible to watch. The unique and bold sound design mirrors Ruben's journey into permanent silence by imitating muffling, implant feedback and tinnitus, plunging audiences into a devastating, first-person third act that takes place almost exclusively inside Ruben's head.
'Sound of Metal' is a unique cinematic experience that has consumed my every thought in the days since my viewing, and should be on the radars of anyone wanting to catch one of the best films this year. If you're lucky enough to get the opportunity to see it on a big screen, take it as soon as you can. Movies like this do not come around very often.