Sound of Metal: Silence speaks volumes

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Greer Vermilye

“While “Sound of Metal” is fictional, its realism is what makes the movie so compelling; Marder designed the movie to shed light on very real, underrepresented struggles.”

By Noey Sheldon

In a small, overcrowded venue, struggling musician Reuben Stone bangs his heart out on his drums. Performance after performance, the raging rhythms have become muscle memory to him. The crowd screams along — as they have so many times before — nearly overpowering the booming crashes of the music. 

Then, an unfamiliar ringing fills Reuben’s ears. The noises that once filled the room dissipate into muffled vibrations, and the sounds of his drums melt away. Reuben plays through the confusion, fruitlessly waiting for his hearing to return before he abruptly storms off the stage mid-gig. The heavy metal doors bang closed behind him, but the noise is completely inaudible. 

Reuben has gone deaf. The sound of metal — his livelihood and love — is gone, replaced by muted drones.

“Sound of Metal,” directed by Darius Marder, has stunned audiences with its raw portrayal of hearing loss. Reuben Stone, a heavy metal drummer and recovering drug addict, suddenly loses his auditory perception as he is performing on tour; he later finds out that his hearing is rapidly deteriorating. Only able to hear around 20-30% of the words spoken to him, Reuben’s doctor instructs him to steer clear of loud noises, but the drummer’s debilitating denial and passion for music pushed him to continue performing. 

Lou, Reuben’s bandmate and girlfriend, reluctantly decides to stop the group’s performances hoping that Reuben will listen to his doctor’s instructions. Reuben’s complex relationship with a deaf recovery center run by Joe — a Vietnam war veteran and former alcoholic — becomes the main focus of the film.

At the forefront of this intimate, character-driven movie is the starring actor, Riz Ahmed. The thespian’s career has consisted most notably of his role in the HBO mini-series, “The Night Of”; his performance as the character Nasir Khan brought him two Emmy nominations in 2017. Like Reuben, Khan faces obstacles in overcoming unexpected situations — the similarity likely helped Ahmed prepare for his more recent role. Ahmed’s show-stopping performance in “Sound of Metal” earned him a 2021 Oscar nomination for Best Actor, allowing Ahmed to make history as the first Muslim nominated for the prestigious award.

Prior to filming, Ahmed dedicated around 13 months to prepare for the role, learning both American Sign Language and how to play the drums to fully immerse himself in the heart and soul of Reuben Stone. Ahmed’s performance is the quintessential component of the film that takes it from good to Oscar-worthy. His emotional expressions — almost too good to be fabricated — nearly convince the audience that this is a documentary rather than a collection of fictionalized scenes. 

Director Darius Marder — who had been unsuccessful in the industry before “Sound of Metal” — spent almost a decade perfecting every detail of this film. The journey started in 2012, when fellow director Derek Cianfrance gifted Marder his unfinished documentary, “Metalhead.” Intent on completing the film, Marder drew from his experiences with his deaf grandmother to guide his ensuing creative process. While “Sound of Metal” is fictional, its realism is what makes the movie so compelling; Marder designed the movie to shed light on very real, underrepresented struggles.

A standout aspect of the film is its sound design, which Marder’s brother, Abraham, designed. Abraham’s work won the film an Oscar at the 2021 Academy Awards. The sound design aims to emulate the experience of hearing loss, making Reuben’s journey all the more immersive to the audience. The muting of certain parts of the film as Reuben experiences them allows the audience to step into his shoes. It’s a rare chance for viewers to grasp the frustration of being unable to communicate, a capacity that many people take for granted.

Although the film has received positive reviews, some within the deaf community have criticized its casting. The presence of a hearing actor in a deaf role made many criticize the lack of representation of disabled actors. However, the film’s portrayal of the deaf community has come with an abundance of praise. Fans appreciate that the overwhelming amount of guidance Reuben receives throughout the movie sheds a positive light on the compassion and support that exists among the hard of hearing.

Reuben’s difficulties as a deaf person encapsulate that the journey to acceptance isn’t always linear and that a desire for a return to the past can interfere with reality. Sometimes, the most difficult of challenges help one gain a greater appreciation for what is already present. In exchange for his hearing, Reuben gains acceptance not only of his situation but of his role as a friend, boyfriend, teacher and human.

Throughout “Sound of Metal,” Reuben’s sudden loss of hearing highlights the beauty of everyday noises through their absence. The little sounds of life many take for granted — rain on a car window, drips of fresh coffee in the morning, creaky floorboards — act as background noise until they’re gone. The “sound of metal,” which once referred to the bash of Reuben’s drums, can now be seen as a constant reminder of hardships past and present. The unforgettable narrative teaches its viewers what it truly means to listen — and that silence can be just as loud as sound.