'Sound of Metal' Review: Silence isn't deafening, but enlightens in Riz Ahmed's evocative film on hearing loss
A question every passionate musician has asked themselves, "What happens if I lose my hearing?" can be as crippling as it can be frightening. For a drummer, not just the hands or ears but every part of the body is a critical tool in music-making and the mere thought of losing the sense of hearing can be seen as life-ending. Once the physical input is lost, the only original sense remaining to create the output is the heart, the core of one's soul and innermost connection with an extrasensory world beyond what appears on the surface. To put it in as few words as possible, that's what Amazon's powerful new original 'Sound of Metal' is all about.
The film follows an itinerant punk-metal drummer Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed) who begins to lose his hearing after a series of adrenaline-fueled one-night gigs. Following a loud screamfest at a gig performed by Ruben and his bandmate girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), the film opens with a light nod and appreciation for the sense of sound with instances of an up-close blender whirring, traffic noise in the background and more. In the world of metal music, a genre often associated with noise, silence is introduced almost as a key character in the film and elegantly juxtaposed to hold its own weight.
Apart from Cooke letting out her own voice for actual metal vocals, Ahmed learning drums before shooting, the film's emotional cues mostly depend on the actors and how they use their bodies. When Ruben begins to realize his problem in its initial stages, Ahmed's facial expressions are subtly altered from mild concern, to dread, to panic and finally full-vented frustration when faced with the choice to seek help or not. Early on in the film, we are treated to a sweetness seen in their relationship that feels sincerely co-dependent.
Lou then checks Ruben, a recovering heroin addict, into a secluded sober house for the deaf in hopes it will prevent a relapse and help him learn to adapt to his new situation. Ruben reacts as if being torn away from his one-and-only support forever, yet it's the act of dealing with his situation in a foreign environment as an individual that is precisely what that he needs. It is at that point that we are swallowed by this fascinating realm of deafness. The community he resides with are utterly quiet yet loud and vibrant in their expressions or movement. From then on, transitioning between scenes feels and sounds like the inner-ear workings of someone experiencing hearing loss, such as drones, muffles, feedback and more. Such devices also capture the feeling of being a musician where isolation of elements, the combination of elements and co-dependency of elements all form a single message. Although 'Sound of Metal' doesn't say the message on screen, it is felt and you're left entranced. Isn't that what music is all about? Emotion.
There's also a realistic interpretation of the deaf world where Ruben is given tasks around the house and getting adapted may feel like a chore at first but gradually becomes habitual. The film feels slow and lo-fi but pulls and rewards patience with a new appreciation for a basic sense we can take for granted. Think of it all as a perception enhancer.
Direction on 'Sound of Metal' has been done to make you face the potential dread of moving at a different pace from the rest of the world, accepting that moving at high energy at all times is not a requisite for living and that stillness and silence allows for one's inner voice to speak volumes and the silence can be enlightening and not deafening. 'Sound of Metal' is about focus and distraction, loss and gain, noise and peace and much more and it comes across as a highly recommended piece of art.
Catch 'Sound of Metal' on Prime Video on December 4.