Riz Ahmed
Riz Ahmed in 'Sound of Metal' (2020) (IMDB)

Silence Has a Sound: The Unempty Quiet in ‘Sound of Metal’

If punk is for those who reject mainstream culture, then in the music film Sound of Metal, nothing is more punk than radical deaf acceptance.

Sound of Metal
Darius Marder
Protagonist Pictures
4 December 2020 (US)

Sound of Metal opens to a black screen. We hear the harsh frequencies of a rock amp. Stretched chords. A metal guitar. This devolves into an ominous thrum, the alien opus of sound sucked into a vacuum, a void. Then, our first visual: a bleach-haired rock drummer, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), seated at his kit, bows his head and listens. His lean torso glistens in sweat. Ropey with muscle inked over with gun tattoos, the words Please Kill Me are spelled out across his chest.

The crowd whistles, hollers. A throaty lead vocalist is amplified off-screen through speakers. Against the flash of camera lights, Ruben’s sticks count out the opening rhythm. He slashes the cymbals, beats the toms, and trills the snares until the pummeling sounds crescendo into a wild, anarchic cacophony of fury and rock.

Anyone who’s ever listened to Fugazi, Bad Brains, the Cro-Mags, and Bleach03 or ever attended a local underground metal concert is familiar with this music’s dissonance, the heart and head-shattering pulse of these sounds. Crowding into the mosh pits before small stages in basements, underground and alternative concert venues like Chicago’s Hideout, Subterranean, and Empty Bottle; New York’s Bowery Ballroom and Saint Victis; San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill and The Knockout. Patrons enjoy uninhibited shots from the bar and—without earplugs or any protection—their young bodies slash and thrash in the sweaty crowds.

Massive amps might be throbbing no more than a few feet away from one’s ears in such places. But the base beats are worth the threat of tinnitus. Because the crowd needs that noise. That emboldened soundtrack releases the frenetic energy of living in a world that deems you a misanthrope or outsider. Here, in this place, you are amongst others like you, a collective underground culture to which you belong.

Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s ambitious directorial debut, was made for such scenes. It’s no wonder Sound of Metal is nominated for six Oscars—including Best Picture, Best Actor for Ahmed’s brilliant lead performance, Best Adapted Screenplay for Marder and Derek Cianfrance’s semi-autobiographical script, and Best Sound for Nicolas Becker’s jaw-dropping sound design. Despite being a 13-years-in-the-making passion project, the film is timely. It’s sculpted for a society filled with punks and misanthropes (both implicit and explicit) trapped in a chaotic world beset with a global pandemic, political upheaval, racial injustice, and economic disparity—by a world that makes no sense, by a world that rejects them.

Sound of Metal captures the intimacies of two seemingly dissonant but actually similar subcultures: the hard punk rock and metal music scene and the deaf community. Sound of Metal is an elegy to punk rock, to deafness, and to the peace that can be found when we embrace life’s quietest moments—the silence within ourselves.

Sound of Metal’s story revolves around Ahmed’s brilliant, razored performance as Ruben, the drummer of the fictional punk-metal duo, Blackgammon. Ruben is a man who lives his life in an avalanche of noise: concerts and thrashing crowds and sound checks and the thunderous decibels of his drums. He’s a recovering addict and nomad, driving from gig to gig in the clunky silver trailer he lives in alongside his Blackgammon bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cook).

Sound of Metal is one of those rare first-person narrative films, tightly focused and never deviating from Ruben’s perspective. As such, there’s not a moment, not a single scene, in which Ahmed is not on screen. We are sucked into Ruben’s headspace. We live his life. We see what he sees, feel what he feels, and—most importantly—hear what he hears.

This is why when Ruben experiences sudden hearing loss, his entire life is upended, and we share his confusion and panic. Onstage, clashing cymbals and Lou’s vocals fade into muffles and high-pitched ringing. Ruben learns he has lost 80% of his hearing.

Blackgammon is Ruben’s livelihood. Not only are their gigs his sole income and the trailer his only home, but—with Lou—the band is his only source of companionship and love. It’s no surprise that Ruben’s knee-jerk reaction to the hearing loss is to ignore and deny, then to minimize. He’s convinced his hearing loss is a bump in the road, a temporary hurdle.

Ruben suffers from the dysfunctional belief that his hearing loss is a temporary medical “problem” that can be “cured”. “A standard medical approach, indeed a common lay-person’s approach, to thinking about disability involves viewing it as a problem that exists in a person’s body,” writes Sara Goering in her essay, “Rethinking Disability: The social modality of disability and chronic disease”. “Disability is perceived [primarily as] an individual’s medical problem in need of treatment.”

Over the course of the film, Ruben must navigate the labyrinth of a hearing world laboring under this notion. People have no understanding and make no allowances for him. Lou worries that this stress will slip-slide Ruben—a recovering addict—backward into drug use, so she convinces him to enter a sober house for the Deaf. He eventually attempts to “fix himself” by undergoing cochlear implant surgery—which turns out not to be the cure-all he thought it would be.

In an A.V. Club interview with Marah Eakin, Ahmed said that while researching his role, he was on a plane with a person who had cochlear implants. The person described the day he got them as “the worst day of his life because [the implants didn’t live up to] what he was expecting.”

In Eakin’s interview, Ahmed says that Ruben has “a lot of wounds that he’s been papering over with the Band-Aids of a relationship and an obsessive focus on drumming, just as he had an obsessive drug addiction in the past.” Ruben’s journey into the deaf community becomes a hero’s journey, an existential understanding of his place in the world amongst people who teach him to embrace his new identity—to appreciate his deafness.

Indeed, Sound of Metal counterargues outdated deaf narratives heralded by films like Penn’s 1962 film, The Miracle Worker. Ruben’s is a journey not of overcoming—Sound of Metal recognizes that deafness is not a thing to overcome—but of acceptance, self-actualization, and the power that comes with embracing silence. Because in Sound of Metal, a deaf life is a punk life.

RATING 9 / 10
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