Darius Marder’s (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) feature film debut “Sound of Metal” paints a sweeping account of mental illness and the fleeting fragility of our coping mechanisms. With an honest and unglamorized portrayal of addiction and disability, led by British-Pakistani powerhouse Riz Ahmed (“Nightcrawler”) and supported by an ensemble cast of deaf actors, the film offers the sort of representation that has long been lacking in Hollywood.
Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer and recovering addict who suddenly loses his hearing. Shortly before a gig, his hearing falters and drops out, only to recover moments later. This recovery is temporary, and when the film’s brilliant sound designer (Nicolas Becker, “Arrival”) pulls the viewer into Ruben’s deafness for a final time, causing his rhythm to falter as he plays, we understand that there will be no respite.
Ruben is supported in his time of crisis by his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, “Ready Player One”), who he lives with in an RV, traveling from show to show across America. Despite their nomadism, they anchor one another to a fragile peace. Both are recovering from addiction and battle ongoing mental health issues. From the glimpses of their routine that are shown onscreen, the viewer can empathize with the stability that it evidently provides: a dripping percolator, the whir of a blender and tender dancing to The Commodores.
The grounding of routine and catharsis of drumming are devastatingly lost with Ruben’s loss of hearing. Lou reaches out to Ruben’s sponsor and finds a place for him to recenter and come to terms with his deafness. This proves to be no small task: Ruben seeks a return to the stability of “normal” while his new deaf support system encourages reconciliation and acceptance, guiding Ruben not to see his disability as something to fix or overcome. As Ruben fights a roiling battle with his suddenly upturned sense of self, Lou must go on living her life. Consequently, there is another fighter in the ring; alongside deafness and addiction, Ruben is faced with the pain of distance from the woman he loves.
In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Ahmed spoke about learning American Sign Language for the film and how it opened him up to emotion. “When I started talking about things in my life … that were emotional, I found myself really physically getting emotional, tearing up at times in a way that I would not have if I was just verbally communicating,” Ahmed said. “In some ways, a fuller kind of communication — a more embodied kind of communication — is possible within deaf culture and signing culture.”
This embodiment is a central theme of the film. Ruben’s physicality is a window into his state of mind. Whether fervently drumming or hammering a doughnut with his fist, Ruben’s emotion leaks on-screen through impassioned movement. Conversely, his body is a record of the battles he loses. When Ruben ultimately gives in to the desire for a pre-hearing loss “normalcy” by electing to get cochlear implants, the viewer sees visceral images of the procedure. His physical self is perforated as he seeks to bury his disability. Throughout the film, Ruben is chastised by his deaf peers for trying to “fix” his deafness and is encouraged to find peace and stillness. Like the physical signs of drug addiction, his capitulation to this “fixer” mentality is embodied in the scars on his scalp from the procedure.
Ruben’s inner wars, with sensory impairment, substance abuse and the search for meaning, are fought in bouts and illustrated with somber beauty for the viewer. At times, the film does too much, framing a thematic moment with unnecessary dialogue — for example, telling Ruben and by proxy, the viewer, that his decision to get cochlear implants was an example of addictive behavior — but even this dialogue contributes to one of the film’s more important messages: Addiction is a mental health issue that can manifest in many ways.
Another such moment of extraneous dialogue concerns Ruben’s inability to find peace through stillness. This, and its foreshadowing of the film’s tranquil conclusion, is clear enough to the viewer without being prompted to connect the dots. However, the dialogue does not minimize the beauty of that resolution. When we leave Ruben, he is coming to realize the mistakes he has made. He is in transition, from the end of the beginning to the beginning of a new kind of recovery, yet he is not unanchored. Ruben has gained more than he has lost.
Refreshingly, “Sound of Metal” gives a non-fetishized voice to mental illness and illuminates the human experience of disability. Most importantly, it promotes acceptance and self-love, the idea that not every problem must be fixed. In fact, they may not even be problems at all.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.