Review by Carmen Chavez
In the seconds before Darius Marder’s directorial debut Sound of Metal started, I rushed to my living room speakers to lower the volume—it was nearing 1 AM and surely I didn’t want to wake up anyone else in the house with what I expected to be a loud film about heavy metal music. With the premise of the film unbeknownst to me, my expectations were reassured as the first 4 minutes of blaring rock music rang through the screen.
Instead, what followed in the next 26 minutes was my own worst nightmare. In a year that has chaotically unleashed the answers to a flurry of “what if” hypotheticals, the majority of us have been forcibly challenged to grapple with every small thing we’ve ever taken for granted. The same rings true for Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the heavy metal drummer whose journey we follow as he abruptly loses his hearing overnight.
As someone who has actually suffered from mild hearing loss my entire life, not only is the film quite literally my personal worst nightmare, but I confirm that the film’s depiction of losing one’s hearing is incredibly accurate. For the 121 minutes of its runtime, Sound of Metal immerses viewers into an intense audioscape like no other; even if Riz Ahmed’s enthralling performance didn’t somehow engross you into his character, the film’s sound will force you to endure his horrific experience as it happens. From the high-pitched traces of tinnitus ringing, to the muffled audiometry test, to the deafening shrieks of cochlear/hearing aid technology, to the dullish hum that lulls throughout—what comes off as fairly common auditory moments to hard of hearing individuals, transpires as gruelingly dreadful terror to the lot. There is rarely a moment of true silence in this film about deafness, because aside from that dullish hum that engulfs the so-called quiet, Ruben’s inner distress and indignation reverberates loudly.
Whether this can be accredited to the surreal surround design or Ahmed’s astounding talent is unclear. But if one thing’s certain, that is the fact that Darius Marders inexplicably made his directorial mark with this remarkable debut. In helming this production with such clear direction, Marders articulates an inconceivable journey of loss and grief through beautifully raw, artistic means. Adding the noteworthy performances of Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci, and Olivia Cooke on top of that makes it all the more exceptional. As aforementioned, Ahmed delivers a profoundly cathartic performance—arguably the best of the year—with his profound portrayal of Ruben that demands to be seen. He performs with such earnestness and vulnerability too captivating not to watch, superbly carrying the film into depths that may not have been reached had it been anyone else.
There is no need to worry about volume levels before watching Sound of Metal, as I have once previously mistaken. Yet, although this film is not audibly loud in a traditional sense, it’s message is deafening. Overall, this story is neither about deafness, nor heavy metal music, but the distressingly muffled in-between. In struggling to cope with his newfound loss, Ruben is forced to confront his demons, and wholly accept his flawed self for who he is. While his story may be one of the extremes—evident in the way this film’s beginning in deafening noise morphs into ending in deafening silence—his internal battle with self-acceptance is seemingly resonant to all of us, hard of hearing or not. After all, in a world filled with chaos and noise, it’s only in those “moments of stillness” where we can find inner peace.
Carmen Chavez is a film writer and filmmaker based in L.A.
Sound of Metal is available on VOD now in the US and UK, and will be released in UK cinemas on May 17.