Darius Marder’s debut film tackles Deafness and addiction with sonic innovation and terrific performances–but lacks insight in crucial areas
In Darius Marder’s debut film, Sound of Metal, heavy metal drummer Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) world upends overnight when he develops unexplained sudden onset deafness. Seemingly permanently disconnected from his passions, his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), and the world at large, his rage and confusion risk a relapse after 4 years sober from heroin. Determined to keep him off a dangerous path, Lou ends their band’s tour and checks Ruben into a countryside rehab/recovery facility specializing in Deaf addicts. Under the wing of facility manager Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben must choose to either find a haphazard “cure” for his new condition, or learn to embrace his Deafness outright.
I leapt at the chance to review Sound of Metal because film and Deafness have been intertwined for me as long as I’ve been alive. I was the first child in my predominantly-Deaf family’s generation to be born Hearing, and I was raised attending the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing/CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) daycare at Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, where I first learned ASL. But outside of school, I mainly learned to read and communicate by matching the sounds I heard from TV with newly-developed Closed Captioning. While my family and I might have differed in our capacity to hear, the shared experience of watching an accessible movie or TV show helped me realize growing up that the barrier between the Deaf and Hearing world was only as mutable as I made it to be.
As shown in Children of a Lesser God, The Hammer, The Tribe, Wonderstruck, and now Sound of Metal, film has the ability unlike any other medium to create an experience that can immerse its audiences in the realities of being Deaf — and in doing so, create a unique empathetic bridge between hearing audiences and the realities facing the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. Through film, a Hearing viewer can recognize in an instant how they can take a sense for granted — and take the first steps towards recognizing any privileged or audist perspectives they may have.
The key here, though, is in encouraging such a didactic mode of storytelling to be just as representative and honest towards Deaf audience members and their experiences — that while Deafness may be defined as an inability to hear, that it is not an experience that is defined by the lack of hearing or any particular sense. That one of the struggles of the Deaf community is not against Deafness itself, but of the societal perception of disadvantage and disability that is imposed upon Deafness by those who are Hearing.
Which is why throughout Sound of Metal, I had a protective guard up — and why I found myself ultimately disappointed by storytelling elements and decisions that weigh down an otherwise excellent film like an iron albatross.
Sound of Metal, as one can glean, defines Ruben’s confrontation with Deafness through his sudden inability to hear. The experience is wholly traumatic, and one that Ahmed conveys with appropriate visceral terror. As a man whose relationships and income is founded upon his drumming in a metal band, all of those things are suddenly at risk — and these opening moments fittingly turn the first quarter of Marder’s film into a horror film. The sound design of these sequences are a technical marvel — the design team experiments with the gradual disappearance of Ruben’s hearing as fleeting aural ghosts, creating a hallucinatory, disorienting experience that few other films have attempted before. The subsequent sequences, as Ruben acclimates to life at Joe’s rehab facility, also uniquely decide to initially not subtitle the ASL of those around Ruben — much like The Tribe, Ruben and his hearing audience must rely on context clues or someone who can translate if they want to fully understand what’s going on. One cannot say that Sound of Metal doesn’t go beyond other films about Deafness before it — it’s a wholly immersive experience that grounds its audience not just in the sensation of Deafness, but the jarring emotional toll such an experience takes on its lead character.
I initially had a protective guard up through these opening sequences, though, because of my upbringing — it wasn’t in me at all to relate to Deafness as a horrifying experience. It’s something, though, I felt like I had to check at the door — because while my experiences with Deafness had every right to inform how I was watching Sound of Metal, they weren’t experiences that were shared by Ruben or the film’s major audience. And through that perspective, it makes Marder’s storytelling decisions — and the rest of the film to come — admittedly that much more immersive and effective.
Throughout, Ruben is guided by Joe, played by the incredible fellow CODA (and frontman for ASL metal band Hands of Doom) Paul Raci. Like Ruben, Joe is a man whose hearing was also lost — in Joe’s case, through a bomb blast in Vietnam. His guiding principle is to help Ruben learn to be Deaf, and much like Ruben’s fellow “guests” at the pastoral facility, Joe recognizes that his role to Ruben isn’t as a teacher, nor is Deafness something that can be taught by learning ASL. Rather, the process Ruben needs to undergo to accept his Deafness and overcome the obstacles that come along with it is as much an emotional journey as it is a physical and mental one. Through Joe and the other guests, Ruben gradually erodes at his own initial self-stigmatizing feelings towards Deafness — and manages to find new, better ways to connect with the world around him.
These are some of the richest segments in Sound of Metal, ones that feel like they build an earnest bridge between the Hearing and Deaf experience. As Ruben learns ASL, subtitles gradually are re-introduced to the film. Among others, even Joe, Ruben relies less on vocalizing his words and more on his burgeoning ASL skills. In one standout moment, Ruben and a young Deaf student also learning ASL communicate through repeating drumming vibrations on a metal slide — a moment whose meaning doesn’t rely on any language at all, just shared visceral experience. They’re moments I haven’t seen on film before — and work wonders in communicating the frustratingly simple idea of Deafness as a life experience that exists beyond comparison to a hearing one. It’s the experience that many Deaf have, and the one I’ve grown up with since birth as a CODA.
What’s nearly as frustrating throughout Sound of Metal is how Ruben — and, by extension, the film itself — never loses his focus on restoring his hearing, even as he continues to grow as an individual within the Deaf community that’s accepted him. His focus is condemned by Joe and others, and to my own surprise, Sound of Metal even manages to broach the difficult subject of Cochlear Implants within the Deaf Community — a procedure that, understandably, many Deaf/HOH see as an identity-condemning procedure that seeks to fix what arguably doesn’t need fixing in the first place. Nevertheless, Ruben persists, and his feverish attempts to raise the money to afford such a costly procedure are framed as as much an addiction as the one Ruben seeks to prevent relapsing into. And it’s here, honestly, where Sound of Metal really began losing me.
Because while it isn’t fair or right to label Deafness as a disability, the solution isn’t to fetishize hearing or to paint it as a potential addiction to kick. Taking this line of belief doesn’t just stunt Ruben’s ability to grow into a Deaf identity — it also invalidates the sum of his own equal experiences as one who could formally Hear. To me, that’s like having two doors that lead to the same place — one that places Hearing and Deafness as irreconcilable social absolutes as much as they are sonic ones. Sound of Metal takes great strides to illustrate the many diverse shades of Deaf identity through Ruben’s experiences at the facility — but the second half of the film ultimately reduces this multilayered struggle back to two polarizing options when Ruben’s reality — and the reality for many others — is far more complicated than that.
What’s troubling is that these absolutes pervade throughout the world that Sound of Metal sets up for Ruben. The rehab facility is the place that Ruben needs most at this point in his life — as a potentially-relapsing addict, he does need a far removal from the world he knows, one with people who can identify with his struggle, who’ve walked the same troubling path and can guide him to a better future. But as Ruben runs the risk of burning bridges with Joe and his work — it’s as if Ruben’s climactic decision also runs the risk of removing himself from the Deaf community at large. But even if Ruben doesn’t know it at that point, the Deaf community is far larger than one man’s organization — I’ve been lucky to grow up in Austin and Washington, DC, two Deaf metropolises alongside places like New York City, Phoenix, and California’s Bay Area. Hell, at one point in the film, Ruben even ends up in Paris, one of the birthplaces of modern sign language. But not once through Sound of Metal do we get a sense of the Deaf experience independent of the rehab facility, or even a Deaf character outside of the rehab itself — and along with it the possibility of potential acclimation to life in a predominantly-Hearing world as a Deaf man.
Rather, the facility feels like a limiting interpretation of the Deaf community at large: one that remains wholly isolated from the Hearing world, where the only options are to either learn enough to thrive within the boundaries of that smaller community or to return to a world that refuses to communicate with Deaf people entirely. It feels wholly reductive to Ruben’s journey to kneecap his possibilities of success in this way — and places the Deaf community in an isolating box of potential mobility that it’s made significant strides of dismantling for many decades.
And while Ruben’s flawed in his continued identification of Deafness as the absence of hearing, and the film recognizes how flawed that belief is — Sound of Metal does little to repudiate that belief itself. As the film continues, so does its sonic experimentation — and without spoilers, it leads Ruben to realize just how permanent his condition truly is by placing him in social situations that play this aspect up. The film frames this as how Ruben grows to accept his Deafness — but I couldn’t help but focus on how toxic this perspective is for a film like Sound of Metal to have.
In short, it’s as if the only way Ruben can accept his Deafness is to try and fail to recapture the sonic quality he could appreciate before. While personal growth can and should come from the ashes of failure, hinging Ruben’s journey on this method of personal acceptance does a disservice to the Deaf experience at large. Deafness to those who become Deaf shouldn’t be framed as an accepted inability to hear, just as those who are born Deaf shouldn’t be seen as just not knowing how good it is to Hear. It frames Deafness as a whole as a second-best option, and places Hearing on a higher social pedestal which it has no claim to in the first place.
Representation matters. It’s important to tell these stories. And for the most part, Sound of Metal immerses its audience in the story of Deafness in a thrillingly-captured way that hasn’t really been done before. I’m also never going to be someone who limits who can tell these stories. It’s just as reductive to restrict creatives from telling stories limited only to their personal life experiences — when the emotions behind such experiences are as universal as anything else, and hold the potential to forge emotional bonds between otherwise disparate audience members and create long-lasting change. But it’s just as important to recognize what perspective we hold when telling these stories — that despite what innovations to our craft we may pioneer in bringing an audience closer to the experience of another, that we may be inadvertently upholding or reaffirming misguided beliefs in the same breath.
Sound of Metal is definitely incredible in many respects. Riz Ahmed’s performance is so lived-in and authentic, and his journey from terror to peace is so crucial in guiding audiences into a world that has otherwise been otherized and mischaracterized by the Hearing community. It’s a film that serves as a good first step into the lives and struggles of the Deaf community. But like other similar films by typically-abled creatives, it’s a film whose intentions are handicapped by its own ableist perspective, whether or not such beliefs are intentionally or genuinely held.
I genuinely look forward to Marder’s film starting a conversation within the Hearing community that’s much needed about shifting perspectives on Deafness from a mere absence of sound to a way of life that thrives wholly independent of that sense — just know that the Deaf and HOH community has been waiting for decades for Hearing people to come to the same conclusions.
Sound of Metal is now playing in select theaters courtesy of Amazon Studios. Amazon will bring it to Amazon Prime on December 4th, 2020.