If you want an idea of life’s sense of humour, watch it laugh as it takes away the things we love the most, slapping us in the face with the residual sting of what we once had.
Or, watch Sound of Metal. More importantly, look deeply at lead actor Riz Ahmed, who plays Ruben Stone, a heavy-metal drummer who loses his hearing.
This is not an ableist film about the tragedy of going deaf and the ability to rise above seemingly unfortunate life circumstances. Directed by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal subverts the reductionist social narrative of disability as something to overcome or rise above. Rather, it creates space for disability to simply be introduced as a part of our lives, albeit unexpectedly. We see this introduction to the world of the deaf through Ruben’s evolving character.
Visually, Ruben embodies the tough guy aesthetic: recovering drug addict covered in tattoos, maniacal drummer with poorly-bleached hair and sinewy muscles. But we also see him as a doting partner, preparing breakfast for himself and his partner Lou, waking her up with gentle caresses, holding her close as they dance to a jazz record.
A drum’s vibration surpasses auditory perception: it is felt. From the start, we see that drumming isn’t Ruben’s profession, it’s his vocation, his calling. The beat of the drum pulses within him and even once his hearing goes, his rhythm remains. The percussive force of the drumbeat is a symbol of Ruben’s resilience, its rhythmic thump like the pulsing of his blood, the beating of his heart. He just keeps going in a world that has turned on him, banging out his every day, one beat at a time.
Ruben begins to notice changes in his auditory function and learns that his hearing will continue to deteriorate rapidly. He also learns of pricey cochlear implants as a potential ‘fix’ for his near-deafness, a miracle solution that he clings on to.
In an agonizing scene, Lou prepares to leave Ruben at a deaf addicts recovery centre and he is frantic, banging on the car’s trunk. “You’re it for me,” he says. “You’re my whole heart.”
Suffering now from both the loss of his hearing and the loss of his partner, he holds his chest and beats it, as if he can stamp out the grief that is filling inside of him as she drives away.
When Ruben settles into his new deaf community he finds it to be not one of silence but one of thunderous expression. He connects with his peers over clamorous dinner tables, and we see more of the child inside of him as he rolls around on the ground with the deaf schoolchildren, or when he stands beside them, feeling the pure vibrations of the piano’s strings with his hands on the lid of the instrument.
In these moments of deep listening, with eyes closed and arms embracing a world not built for them, Ruben and his newfound community were able to understand the music better than any hearing person could.
Sound of Metal is as much about music, sound and silence, as it is about love, and life in which we are mere players. When our most beloved intangible possessions are ripped from us, and we must find new things to hold on to, yet again.
Ruben receives the surgery for the implants and is asked to leave the centre, since, in choosing a life of hearing, he is no longer accepted into the world of the deaf. But, the sound the cochlear implants produce is greatly distorted, and Ruben falls deeper into the trap of his own expectations and into a further abyss of loss. This is compounded by the discovery that, when he returns to his partner, Lou has become stronger without him.
When the reunited couple lies in bed together, Ruben senses Lou’s rising anxiety and discomfort. He hugs her. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay.”
Left arm blazened with Lou’s name tattooed on it, he holds her but she has already let go. And, he has let her. Ruben accepts losing yet another piece of himself for the sake of the one he loves.
Alone again, he hears the mangled obscurity of church bells through his implants. Removing them, he looks up at a European sky that does not smile down on him, and we fade to black.
The Film’s Authenticity
Take note of what the reader gets to hear, and you’ll find that the most touching moments of the film feature no sound at all.
Take note again that these moments of quiet are not moments of absence. The deaf community advocates for a world that does not centre itself on sound. Instead of thinking of deafness as a lacking physiological function, the depth of existence as a deaf person requires a kind of deeper listening beyond that of auditory function.
Importantly, Riz Ahmed is a hearing individual. In taking on this role, he was representing a community of which he is not a part offscreen. He spent months learning ASL and immersing himself in deaf culture, but we must ask: is this enough?
Watching Sound of Metal, I was struck by its authenticity. But I, too, am a hearing person. Who am I to say what the authentic experience of losing your hearing is like?
Many deaf individuals were consulted in the making of this movie and numerous characters in the film are deaf. Ahmed, desiring to be fully immersed, wore auditory blockers for some scenes when he first lost his hearing, where he could not even hear himself speak.
Still, we must be wary of writing other people’s stories and speaking for them.
Nonetheless, Sound of Metal aches with something that, at the very least, feels very real. Its story bears no overarching message, no fairytale ending and no lesson for us to learn. It’s simply a heart-wrenching picture of real life. The only message is that this here, this 130-minute film, is what life is. And Ruben Stone, despite his chest tattooed with the words “Please Kill Me,” finds a way to keep marching on.