“The world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But … those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”
In a lot of movies such lofty pronouncements might pave the way for a long shot of sunset parting the clouds or a meditative montage set to the music of Sufjan Stevens. But in Sound of Metal — Darius Marder’s debut drama, nominated for six Oscars — the stakes are too high for easy transcendence. Coming from the mouth of Joe (Paul Raci), a grizzled alcoholic with a ponytail, and directed at Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a drummer and former heroin user with PLEASE KILL ME (a phrase with punk provenance) inked onto his chest, the words feel more like a threat than a salve. Ruben is going deaf, and whether it’s from ear damage or an autoimmune issue, he can never get back the sense that is both the bedrock of his identity and means of percussively channeling his demons. “I understand that I got a problem,” Ruben snaps at the doctor explaining his diagnosis. “I’m asking what I can do about it.”
The answer comprises the central narrative tension in a film that privileges Ruben’s psychological and sensory process over any other factor. Prompted by girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), lead singer in their punk-metal duo, with whom he lives and tours in a well-appointed Airstream, Ruben’s sponsor finds him a bed in a group home in the country for Deaf recovering addicts, led by Joe, who lost his hearing after a blast in Vietnam and reads lips and signs to communicate. “You should understand, Ruben, that this is a Deaf community,” Joe emphasizes early on. “It’s very important, if you want to be here, to understand that we are looking for a solution to this [points to his forehead] not this [points to his ears].” Should Ruben seek cochlear implants and move back in with Lou? Or embrace his role within a vibrant Deaf culture? Sound of Metal doesn’t offer pat solutions, but honors the complexity of all facets involved.
Equal to the film’s focus on Ruben’s growth is its devotion to presenting the Deaf community as one rich with very different human beings; the film achieves a kind of effortless intersectionality that is woefully uncommon onscreen — Black, brown, pangenerational, and multi-shaped folks dominate the frame for at least half of the film. Ahmed, moreover, is British-Pakistani, and the first Muslim actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. In Marder’s universe, all souls seem part of the same collective struggle.
Not everyone in the Deaf community has been happy with the choice to cast a hearing actor in the lead role, however, or that certain actors in roles representing the Deaf community are not actually Deaf. While Chelsea Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Shaheem Sanchez, and Jeremy Lee Stone, in addition to several extras, all identify as Deaf, they were, according to Emma Purcell, “all minor characters, at times lacking names or backstories.” This is a salient point, yet the fact that so many did have names and nuanced backstories is worth noting: Ridloff plays Diane, the glowing elementary school teacher whose Deaf students collaborate with Joe’s group home; Domenico Toledo plays a freckly Deaf boy named Michael, who implores Ruben to teach him how to drum; and Lee plays a queer woman named Jenn, who gradually befriends Ruben and, in one especially delightful exchange, provides anatomical guidance on how to draw the nude woman he will tattoo on her shoulder.
Until Ruben learns to communicate via American Sign Language, the conversations between the Deaf cast go unsubtitled; viewers who don’t know ASL are kept as clueless as the main character about the gossip, playful insults, and revelations going on across the dinner table or within the sacred space of an AA meeting. Ahmed trained for seven months to learn ASL and Raci, also a hearing actor, was raised by Deaf parents and is a member of the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. Hearing audience members, above all those with no ASL knowledge, are made outsiders to a world as rich with idiosyncrasy as any audible world of human interaction. “Sound of Metal may be about deafness, but it’s not really about the Deaf community. (Or for us.),” Lee said for the film on Twitter. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, though. It’s complicated!”
Lee’s right. Sound of Metal is less about the Deaf community than about the process of losing a sense inextricably tied to one’s identity, about reconciling oneself to both emotional and sensory loss in a deeply interior way. It is also a film that calls attention to the intrinsically sonic nature of cinema. Supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker did foley work for Gravity and Arrival, and leads an A-list sound team for Sound of Metal that rivals any outsized special effect. When Ruben finally obtains cochlear implants, the sonic effect is hardly welcome; voices are filtered through a busted drive-thru speaker piped through a distortion pedal. The “sound” of metal isn’t just what he’s lost, musically, but the metallic whine-meets-white noise he tolerates day to day.
The New York Times’s Jeannette Catsoulis said the script was “underwritten” and “dramatically muted,” but in many ways the lack of overt dialogue and showy affect makes for a richer, less didactic journey with Ruben as he navigates his future — as a Deaf person, as an addict, and as a man who desperately loves both his partner and the music they make together. That a movie sans epic revelation paired with a sweeping score has been nominated for six Oscars is a sign of the emotional power of the acting, art, and sound design — and perhaps, that prestige-drama standards don’t cut it when it comes to certain human experiences.
As Ruben departs Lou’s father’s flat in Paris toward the film’s finale, his stroll through the city becomes an exercise in aural dissonance: bicycles screech, church bells clatter, the morning promenade crackles like a fly trapped in a bug zapper. When he removes his beanie to unplug his cochlear earbuds, the absence of noise brings him sudden peace — bright, still, sacred.