Christina Reynolds’s review published on Letterboxd:
I’ve been waiting to watch this for a while now; There really aren’t any particular reasons why that I could offer, but given the subject matter I had some apprehension. Hearing loss - despite the fact that I am not affected by this condition personally - is something I feel I have a special connection with.
One of my aunts is deaf, and she wears a cochlear implant. During my undergraduate career I played something along the lines of a “nanny” role for a child (‘V’) that was born deaf up until the age of 3. I will be keeping them in mind as I watch this film and write this review.
I wanted to do something a little different, however, and decided to make this particular viewing a bit more interactive than I normally would; over the course of a few days I will be watching this film 2 “different” ways with the goal of feeling more engaged with the subject matter. My ultimate hope is to make this essentially two separate reviews that flow as one cohesive unit. Thank you for your time and reading in advance.
“𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝒐𝒏𝒍𝒚 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒘𝒐𝒓𝒔𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒏 𝒃𝒆𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒃𝒍𝒊𝒏𝒅 𝒊𝒔 𝒉𝒂𝒗𝒊𝒏𝒈 𝒔𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕 𝒘𝒊𝒕𝒉 𝒏𝒐 𝒗𝒊𝒔𝒊𝒐𝒏.”
During my first attempt I watched this film without any volume OR captions. That’s right. This was particularly uncomfortable for me because I like to multitask when I'm watching films and I'm sure I'm not the only one. The result of this habit is that I tend to get the majority of information from films from what I can hear as opposed to what I can see.
Isn’t it weird how much knowledge is received about our surroundings through the menagerie of sounds we can interpret? One can have their eyes open all day - but without certain cues related to sound our environment can be so obscured.. . . it can make so little sense. Try watching something now that has content you are familiar with (like, a news broadcasting or a music video, or a movie trailer even) on mute and compare it to watching something on mute that is brand new.
Before even talking about Ahmed’s performance - Let's talk about his appearance and physical qualities that gives his character an extra layer of depth and some insight in to his personality. Ruben is both literally and physically a billboard of agony: his tattoos aggressively accept and in some ways invite the harshest of criticisms and judgements that could be associated with his career and particular lifestyle.
But. His eyes…..oh my gooooooodness, his eyes could give Emma Stone a run for her money and are naturally the most transparent of windows into the soul of his character. His glare and his attentive gaze is magnetizing and in some ways a hypnotic force of nature. This - in addition to the subtlest of gestures that stand out when all is silent - combine and make watching this an almost transcendent experience. One need not hear Ruben to be submerged in his anger and his frustration and be compelled to empathize with his character - these emotions are unapologetically worn on the sleeve and painted on the face with an attention to detail and intensity that only actors like Ahmed are innately capable of.
Okay, I lied. I actually watched this film 3 different ways.
“𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒆𝒏𝒄𝒆 𝒊𝒔 𝒂 𝒍𝒊𝒆 𝒕𝒉𝒂𝒕 𝒔𝒄𝒓𝒆𝒂𝒎𝒔 𝒂𝒕 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒍𝒊𝒈𝒉𝒕.”
During this attempt I watched this film without it physically being seen - I had ONLY the sound playing. This is still uncomfortable in some ways, but this would give me a better clue of the context in which certain actions I had already seen were occurring.
Before even discussing the sound quality of this feature, can we just take a second and appreciate Ahmed’s performance on the drums? My man spent 6 MONTHS learning how to play this instrument for this role, and his energy on the set is simply infectious! The discipline, dedication, and ferocity needed to hone this particular skill (especially to the degree he excels in it) is just another reflection of how much attention was paid to the details that make this story as touching and as believable as it ends up being.
The combination of sound is a meticulous combination of muffled chaos and crystal clear organization. Ruben’s sense of hearing is shown as being one of his strongest (no surprise given he’s a musician) and this makes the jarring changes in volume logically sound. Additionally, some manipulation is used to capture interactions that most hearing people may not be well educated on - like replicating what the quality of sound might be for someone when wearing and adjusting to a cochlear implant- and bridges the gap between people in the audience that are personally affected by hearing loss and people that have never made significant considerations of the challenges and struggles that affect this special population particularly.
It was in this viewing that silence had the loudest voice. Periods of quiet that lasted merely seconds felt like they were dragging for minutes and made my mind wander places that were surprisingly distressful. I almost cried at times because I can't remember a time where I felt as alone as I did when listening to this film and having nothing else to act as an entertaining distraction. The isolation of Ruben’s diagnosis is immeasurably deafening and just goes to show…..that perhaps loneliness and alienation is one of the loudest echo chambers of them all.
One of the earliest criticisms I had of this film was in regards to the impact that music (and playing the drums) has on Ruben’s life and his identity having a seemingly underwhelming presence in this story when sound is taken out of the equation. Experiencing the film this way, however, made me think more intensely about the title of it. ‘Sound of Metal’ could potentially just be speaking to a performative aspect related to hearing, but when thought of in a literal sense it is a testimony to the perverse and inescapable influence that becoming deaf can have when compounded with moments where all hearing is intact.
To better illustrate this point - think of a pot or an object that is made of metal. If this piece of metal was about to be hit (and thus, make a sound) it would be almost instinctual to recoil and prepare for the noise associated with this event. Ruben doesn’t have this choice - it is all but stolen from him - and makes this story best received as an exploration of the process of reconciliation that might be needed when autonomy and anatomy are no longer related in a complimentary fashion.
As to avoid the use of the word “normal” it goes without saying that this last viewing was done in the way that is most typical - with auditory and visual stimuli combined. One might think a third viewing in a row would make me jaded to the entire plot at this point, but for me it was actually the exact opposite. The prospect of being able to put what I saw and listened to together was exciting and exactly what I needed to weave all of my collective criticisms together.
Additionally, I also did a little bit of research regarding specific creative choices that were made by all of the people involved in the making of this film.
I made a bit of what I would call a ‘mistake’ when watching, and I’m hoping that in being honest with this confession that I can potentially keep someone else from also making it.
To put it simply, I made a note in my head that I felt the presence of Ruben’s use of ASL in ‘Sound of Metal’ was clumsily compartmentalized. There isn’t much done to make the audience overtly aware of how much time is passing in this film, so it’s very easy to suggest and assume that Ruben goes from not knowing any ASL, to using/understanding ASL a little, to being perfectly fluent in (and dependent on) ASL, and then not using ASL at all. While it would have been nice to be privy to specific choices made between these phases it’s important to keep one thing in mind:
This is Ruben’s story. . I forgot this for a second and unfairly projected my expectations (and judgements) of his behavior and mannerisms using his surrounding environment (and the people in them) as an unfair point of comparison. I might as well have been expecting him to run a mile before giving him an opportunity to stretch his legs. Moreover, challenges that create gaps that aren’t anticipated (such as the decision to go through with surgery being potentially controversial) work to present Ruben as trapped in the middle of what feel like conflicting identities.
If at any point one thinks that certain interactions don’t look right or seem genuine, let us be gracious and remember:
𝑰𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒆𝒏𝒅, 𝒕𝒉𝒊𝒔 𝒊𝒔 𝒖𝒍𝒕𝒊𝒎𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒍𝒚 𝑹𝒖𝒃𝒆𝒏’𝒔 𝒋𝒐𝒖𝒓𝒏𝒆𝒚.
So as to put a nice bow on this review I would just like to bring attention to the level of involvement people in the deaf community (and those connected to it) had in making this film. Perhaps most obviously a large number of the cast members were hired directly from this population. Paul Raci - who plays Joe, the founder of the deaf rehab facility in this film - is a prominent figure in the deaf community as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults, as both of his parents were deaf) and is a member of a heavy metal band that performs in ASL. Riz Ahmed - in addition to learning the drums as mentioned above - learned American Sign Language for this role and used it exclusively when communicating with the directors and other cast members while on set. ‘Sound of Metal’ is the pinnacle of quality that is possible with just the right amount of commitment and modest wherewithal.
Before my closing statement, I would just like to reiterate some focus and gratitude on the people I have met that have had the largest influence on my perception about this film and material related to the deaf community;
To my aunt - thank you for your always-forward-thinking example of tenacity and for entertaining any question I have ever had about your life experiences….ever. You encourage others to be their own advocates and are an endless source of inspiration for anyone you meet.
To ‘V’ - thank you for your patience. I know brushing up on my ASL while trying to teach it to you wasn’t easy….but I wouldn’t have changed anything about that experience if given the opportunity.
(P.S. For those of you that are interested in learning ASL or have children that are interested - ‘Signing Time’ is a fantastic resource I would recommend. Since It is “made” for children it is a bit juvenile, but it is SUPER helpful!)
Far from technical perfection, 'Sound Of Metal' shines as an outstanding effort in making entertainment out of material that must be handled with care. Obviously made with passion and respect at its center, Darius Marder raises the bar on creating media that is far too often saturated with ableism and soaked with a profound sense of misery. My five stars in this context has less do with how phenomenal this particular piece is - I mean, it is phenomenal - but is more of an acknowledgement of what this film is, what this film could have been, what this film refuses to be, and what I hope to see more of in movies in the future.
'Sound of Metal' is seen with the eyes and heard with the ears -
But it's digested with the heart.
As an exercise this was a bit exhausting, but the insight was absolutely priceless.
To those of you that are still here:
Thank you for taking the time in reading this and I hope you have a great day.