As a child, I had the enormous pleasure to be introduced to students who were deaf. They were in the classroom next to mine, and because my teacher was learning American Sign Language she thought it was a good idea to be introduced to these students. There was also a student in my class who was fluent in ASL because his mother was deaf so there was plenty of exposure to those in the deaf community. As an adult I’ve continually had encounters with people from the deaf community and have found them to be incredibly warm and beautiful, including an instance while living in Virginia I was invited to the home of a Navy Officer and his wife and she was deaf. While he prepared dinner I was privileged to play some classical music on his guitar, and his wife sat across from me watching my hands carefully while she placed her hand on the body of the guitar so that she could feel what I played. I have played to many audiences in years past, but she is without a doubt, my favorite audience member. I’ve also had to deal with my mother’s hearing issues as she aged, and while she never went completely deaf, she was extremely hard of hearing and that is what makes Amazon Studios’ Sound of Metal such an amazing film for allowing me to experience what she went through.
Ruben is a heavy-metal drummer and his girlfriend Lou is the singer for their duo. They are both in recovery from substance abuse and music is what drives them. Suddenly, and very early on in the film, Ruben starts to lose his hearing not long before their gig that night. He sees a doctor who informs him that he has less than 30% hearing in both ears and steps need to be taken to save what he has left. Ruben is also made aware of a surgical procedure where he could receive cochlear implants, but Lou has a better idea. She takes him up to a camp filled with people of all ages who are deaf. Ruben reluctantly agrees and while he eventually does adapt to his new situation, he refuses to accept it.
Sound of Metal took some big chances by playing with the audio to simulate what some in the deaf community go through, not just those who are fully deaf but those who also have lost most of their hearing. I have heard others who still retain some that it sounds like you’re underwater. At times the film turned down all of the mid and high frequencies and only emphasized the low frequencies causing much of the audio Ruben was hearing to come out of our sub-woofer. The psychological and even physiological response to watching this was most unnerving. I found myself becoming extremely agitated despite being fully aware of the film’s intent. This helped to create a sense of empathy with those who struggle with some hearing loss. Later, when Ruben does receive his cochlear implants the sound becomes very electronic and tinny leaving the viewer unable to discern one sound from the other and instead just hear what amounts to be a wall of noise. These effects in the film are meant to open the mind of the viewer to the plight of many who are partially deaf to completely deaf, and despite my earlier exposure to those in the deaf community, what this film did for me was beyond enlightening.
The cast is brilliant starting with Riz Ahmed as Ruben. Due to his dedication, he made it a point to learn ASL so that he could sign properly and naturally instead of coming off as acting using ASL. The frustration he shows as Ruben rapidly loses his hearing is remarkable and intense. As a film viewer, it left me feeling helpless as I saw Ruben’s life spiral out of his control.
There is also Olivia Cooke as Lou. While her on-screen presence isn’t as great as Ahmed’s, she does an amazing job in showing a character who is tortured in part through her recovery from substance abuse as well as trying to care for Ruben. Lastly, of the main cast, there is Paul Raci as Joe, the counselor, and leader of the deaf community that Ruben visits as he tries to adapt to his situation. Raci is a CODA or Child of Deaf Adults and is also a Court Certified ASL Interpreter. He is also one amazing actor and in scenes where he converses with Ruben and expresses anguish over what he sees Ruben doing Raci does his emoting, not only with his voice but also with his hands. In this way, the emotional impact of what the character of Joe has to communicate to Ruben felt like a punch in the chest.
There are other wonderful actors who are deaf that delivered such beautiful performances in their roles including Chelsea Lee who plays Jenn, a young lesbian who befriends Ruben at the Deaf Camp. This is Lee’s only acting role, but watching her on the screen I would have thought that she had been acting all of her life.
There are so many things to take away from Sound of Metal. The film itself serves two purposes with the first creating a situation by which audience members can identify with the challenges that deaf people go through. It also teaches that just because someone is challenged with hearing loss does not make that person any less than who and what they are. This is the lesson that Ruben doesn’t learn at first as he tries to rebuild his music career. Something else that this film suggests is that just because someone may be deaf it should not prevent that person from pursuing a career in acting. Every role in this film was precious, from Joe to Ruben, even down to the young school kids. They were all beautiful and should be treated as such, both out in the world and possibly even in this insane industry we call filmmaking. Many of these people deserve to be seen again and again on both the small and large screens.
I have always maintained that when art is at its best that it can change and transform you. Sound of Metal is a work of art because it changed and transformed me.
I give Sound of Metal 5 out of 5 Handwaves.
Sound of Metal comes out on Amazon Prime on December 4, 2020.