As a child, I was unafraid of the temporal phobias many kids seem to have: snakes, spiders, clowns, heights, dental checkups, the deep end of a swimming pool, bring it on—but I did have one irrational fear: losing my hearing. As a music critic and listener, it is the sense I hold most dearly, and have since childhood. That particular fear is the fate of Riz Ahmed, who stars—along with his very good G.I.S.M., Rudimentary Peni, and Einstürzende Neubauten shirts—in a new film called Sound of Metal, in which he plays the drummer of a noise punk band who loses his hearing and is challenged with learning how to live with deafness, highlighting the physicality of musicianship that frequently goes unexplored when discussing the medium. The movie fucked me up, in the best way possible, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Sound of Metal opens with Ruben (Ahmed) on stage, blasting a d-beat on tour, slowly coming to the realization that his hearing is failing. He keeps his ailment a secret from his partner and his band’s frontperson Lou (Olivia Cooke), even as they share a bed in the RV where they live, until he’s able to see an otolaryngologist. He ignores the doctor’s suggestion that he avoid loud sounds, and suffers the consequences mid-set. (That is intrinsic to his personality—he stubbornly believes he can “fix” his deafness, even when multiple physicians tell him his hearing cannot be restored—here, a behavior reminiscent of his previous addiction to heroin. Lou convinces him to attend a rehab facility for deaf persons, which he combats but ultimately agrees to.) The bulk of the film is spent following his education—he learns sign language, he becomes a valued member of the rehab’s community, he gets up every morning and spends hours writing in a room as an exercise in self-acceptance—until he sneaks into the office of the head of the facility, Joe (portrayed by a patient Paul Raci) and uses his computer. Ruben learns Lou is playing solo noise sets in her dad’s home city of Paris and decided to sell his property to afford cochlear implant surgery instead of continuing with the program and learning how to live without hearing.
The beauty of the film is not simply the plot, but the way the story is heard—true to the ambiance of the moment. When Ruben loses his hearing, so does the viewer. Sound weaves in and out from the laughs and clinking of silverware at a dinner table full of other people with deafness, to the muffled heartbeats and clangorous rhythms Ruben can still make out. Many scenes are filmed in total silence, interrupted by natural percussion—like the reverberation of a young boy drumming on the top of a metal slide while Ruben sits on the bottom of it, or a classroom of elementary school-aged children palming the top of a grand piano to feel a classical composition in their chest. In the beginning, the absence of noise is frustrating, but serves an intimate purpose: to establish empathy, and to approximate the way a person might lose their hearing.
I believe the most effectual films—those classified as prestigious, those that win the most elite awards—often depend on evocative soundtracks. Sound of Metal does the opposite—silence is where it succeeds. In the final scene, Ruben removes his cochlear implant after tolerating the discordant buzz of a busy Paris street and sits in silence, watching the sun grow bigger and brighter behind a large evergreen tree, and closes his eyes as he enjoys the stillness. He doesn’t smile—that would be a package too neatly wrapped—but seems to accept his new reality presumably after months or years of fighting it. And while this film, on paper, may appear to exude the sentimentality of a sports film defined by its protagonist injuring themselves, Sound of Metal avoids schmaltz and instead, cuts straight to the heart. Turns out, losing the ability to hear isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a musician.