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)

The Riotous Balm of Misanthropes

Ruben has a punk aesthetic, a fiercely independent nature, and a traumatic past. With his bleached hair and tattooed torso, he has a hard, seemingly impenetrable exterior that actually wraps a loving introvert, a soft and gentle soul.  He’s an easily relatable and empathetic character, particularly to people with their own demons to wrestle. We feel him.

In the opening scenes, we easily understand his kinship and romantic relationship with Lou, Blackgammon’s lead singer and guitarist. Lou is a lost young woman with bleached eyebrows and dye-fried hair and a gravelly, deep voice like Holy Moses’ Sabina Classen. Olivia Cook delicately rings out the unspoken subtext of Lou’s traumatic childhood, her cutting, and the depression she suffered after her mother’s suicide. Lou flees her affluent Parisian family to find solace in their nomadic silver trailer and healing in the unconditionally loving arms of Ruben, a fellow damaged soul, and a music world that celebrates both of their needs to vent pain.

Ruben clings to their rootless, nomadic life. His willingness to sacrifice the love and happiness he later finds in the deaf community, so that he can reclaim Lou and the trailer—that is the actual trap.

Through the confused, overwhelmed viewfinder of his new deaf world, Sound of Metal’s cinematography stresses the importance of Ruben’s sight. The camera is Ruben’s eye, made even more evident by Ahmed’s use of his strongest, largest, most striking acting feature. Unable to hear conversations, Ruben’s eyes dart back and forth, taking in rooms and reading others’ facial expressions. Throughout the entirety of Sound of Metal, we can’t look away from this face, the big brown eyes so wide they threaten to pop from his skull.

When Ruben chooses his name sign, he decides on a gesture: ringing his eye with his pointer finger and thumb, then popping the fingers outward, indicating an eye widening into a moon. Ahmed’s eyes shimmer with an intense emotionality that quietly yet powerfully reveals Ruben’s denial, panic, reluctance, discovery, and hope. Ahmed’s performance never overreaches, remaining small and hard and raw. It’s no wonder this performance is celebrated with an Oscar nomination.

Ruben’s journey is not just for those navigating hearing loss but for anyone going through a turbulent period of change. In the A.V. Club interview, Ahmed says he rooted Ruben in a journey we should all take, in which we “take steps closer and closer to stripping away the external things that we think define us, stripping away our attachment to them.” He wanted Ruben to sit in silence and face the void of himself.

Countercultures: The Punk Rock and Deaf Communities

One might think that the raw noise of Ruben’s punk life could never harmonize with the existential silence of deafness. Nothing could be further from the truth. “The film is a wake up,” says Marder in an interview with Variety. “Most people think of deafness as a disability. We don’t understand that it is in fact a culture.” The juxtaposition of these worlds—the hearing and the non-hearing—and Ruben’s transitional journey between the two, showcase a bright, connective thread… and that thread is counterculture.

Punk exploded as a countercultural movement in the 1970s. Designed to shock and offend, punk didn’t blur the boundaries of what constituted music so much as sharpen its edges, blasting conventionality into broken glass. Punk “retrieved those things rejected by mainstream society—the ‘outsider,’ the most disposable forms of… noise, nonsense, ugliness—and revalue them,” writes Peter S. Groff, curator of Bucknell University’s exhibit, Damaged Goods: The Punk Aesthetic. “It encouraged people to make their own culture instead of just consuming what was made for them.”

If punk is for those who reject mainstream culture to make their own, then in Sound of Metal, nothing is more punk than radical deaf acceptance and a celebratory life of silence.

Philosopher Susan Wendell wants to end ablism and correct the oppression and discrimination experienced by people with disabilities. Wendell lives with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and writes in her book The Rejected Body, “I cannot wish that I had never contracted ME, because it has made me a different person, a person that I am glad to be, would not want to have missed being, and could not imagine relinquishing, even if I were ‘cured.’”

In Sound of Metal, this idea is best exemplified by the character Joe (Paul Raci), a veteran who lost his hearing in Vietnam and the leader of the deaf sober house that Ruben joins. Joe is a guide, ushering Ruben into his deafness. “Learn to be deaf,” Joe writes for Ruben on the kitchen whiteboard that the house uses to delegate chores. He’s the guru who opens Ruben’s mind to the peace and healing to be found when sitting in stillness and silence.

Raci’s performance as Joe is graceful, patient, and authentically cultivated from first-hand experience. He is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA). Raci’s performance is powerful in its resonance and earned the actor his first Oscar nomination in a 40-year career.

In an interview with The New York Times celebrating his nomination, Raci recounts the difficulty in finding roles that utilized his skills. Kyle Buchanan writes, “A lifetime spent as his parents’ hearing interpreter had instilled in Raci a love for performance, but when he moved to Los Angeles decades ago to pursue an acting career, roles were scarce.” This is part of the reason why Marder was committed to casting deaf actors or people from within the culture, like Raci.

Sound of Metal’s “achievements are impressive,” writes Variety’s Tim Gray, “considering Hollywood’s depictions of deafness in the past.” He goes on to list films that either cast hearing actors to play deaf characters (Negulesco’s 1948 film, Johnny Belinda, and Iñárritu’s 2006 film, Babel), used deaf characters as plot devices (Hanson’s 1994 film, The River Wild, and Flannigan’s 2016 horror film, Hush), or utilized deafness as a trait to give a supporting character a quirk or some kind of distinctiveness (Graupera’s 2016 film, Creed, Newell’s 1994 Four Weddings and a Funeral, Herek’s 1995 Mr. Holland’s Opus).

That’s not to say there haven’t been moves toward more accurate and diverse depictions of deafness on screen. Marlee Matlin won an Oscar for her role in Haine’s 1986 film, Children of a Lesser God. There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007) and A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018) are recent films that cast deaf actors (Russell Harvard, Millicent Simmonds) to play deaf characters because, as Gray writes, “Deaf people always remember when someone pretends to be deaf.”

Ahmed, however, is a hearing actor who spent seven months learning ASL. In this case, Ahmed’s casting makes sense, a “deliberate choice”, Marder says. Ruben is a hearing man new to deafness. He needed to exude a sense of being an alien, whereas a deaf actor might feel too comfortable in the role of someone who is, essentially, an expatriate in the deaf world.

It ends up being Ruben’s punkness—his loud, brazen expressions of individuality and passionate independence—that finally helps him connect with the community around him. He draws a DIY tattoo of a curvaceous, naked girlfriend on the shoulder of an LGBTQ house member. He leads a drumming class for the students at his ASL school. He bangs out rhythms on the metal slide of a playground for a child classmate struggling with isolation; the troubled boy presses his ear to the metal and is lulled into tranquility by the reverberations that calm like a heartbeat.

The World Is Never Quiet

Ahmed and Raci’s performances are not the only stars in Sound of Metal. That distinction also belongs to composer and sound designer, Nicolas Becker. The film is unique because, unlike the vast majority of Hollywood productions, there is no score. With the exception of Blackgammon’s punk-metal performances, the narrative relies entirely on naturalistic sound design.

Becker is no stranger to complicated soundscapes. He was a foley artist for Academy Award-winning films like Gravity (Cuarón, 2013) and Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016). In Sound of Metal, he was tasked with putting the audience in Ruben’s head by sculpting the sounds he hears. In an interview with Sonia Rao for The Washington Post, Marder says, “There are many degrees of hearing loss, but there’s hardly any degree of hearing loss that is silence.”

After consulting deaf people and conducting research by spending time in a pitch-black anechonic chamber, Becker says in an interview with Variety’s Jazz Tangcay, “When you’re in it, you start hearing the sound of your tendons and the blood flowing through your body.” This inspired Becker to mold sounds not from a commercial sound library, but from Ahmed’s own body. Writes Tangcay, “With a stethoscope and sensitive microphones attached to Ahmed’s frame, the designer captured the actor’s breathing, his voice, his muscle movement and even the moment he opened his mouth.”

These sound decisions are purposeful and powerful. Ruben’s emotional journey is one of accepting the world as he hears it. In the beginning, sounds are alien: pinched, painful ringing, and muffled music at first. For the scene where Ruben gets cochlear implants, Becker consulted with audiologists to create the metallic, robotic noise of unnatural conversation that bypasses the ear. By the end of the film, Ruben hears harmonious rhythms and intimate, naturalistic sounds, finding existential peace in the music of his deafness.

When the river Is deepest, it makes the least noise.

Proverb

In Sound of Metal’s final scene, Ruben sits on a bench in Paris and winces at the harsh black noise he hears—the honking cars and clanging church bells and scratching movements roboticized through the bippy electronic mechanism of his cochlear implants.

In frustration, he removes them, and the film is awash in a balm of noiselessness. He watches sunlight filtering through green leaves. The contrail from planes drift high in a blue sky. The blinding, vocal, tight-fisted world of noise fades into a wedge-shaped core of evaporated self, awash in hovering calm. He sighs, accepting.

Ruben self-actualizes. He realizes what Joe was trying to teach him all along, the lesson we all should embrace. It is a lesson that has been taught time and again through the centuries. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Silence is a source of Great Strength.” The 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said, “In silence, there is eloquence.” A Hebrew proverb proclaims, “Silence heals all ills,” and Mother Theresa said, “In the silence of the heart God speaks.” Speech may be silver, but silence is golden.

How much better is silence… How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here forever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Sound of Metal teaches us that in a world consumed by riotous disorder and chaos and the veneer of noise, it is in the stillness, the melodious silence, where we can finally find peace.


Works Cited

Buchanan, Kyle. “How ‘Sound of Metal’ Star Paul Raci Went From Day Jobs to Oscar Nominee”. The New York Times. 31 March 2021. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Eakin, Marah. “Riz Ahmed on identity, hearing loss, and Sound of Metal“. AV Club. 5 December 2020. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Goering, Sara. “Rethinking disability: the social model of disability and chronic disease. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, vol. 8, no. 2. June 2015, pp. 134-138. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Gray, Tim. “Oscar-Worthy ‘Sound of Metal’ Is a ‘Wake-Up’ to Deaf Culture.” Variety. 11 December 2020. Accessed 7 April 2021.

Groff, Peter S. Damaged Goods: The Punk Aesthetic. 19 August-8 December 2019. Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. Accessed: 7 April 2021.

Rao, Sonia. “How ‘Sound of Metal’ captured the sounds of silence.” The Washington Post. 8 December 2020. Accessed: 7 April 2021.

Sound of Metal. Dir. Darius Marder. Amazon Studios. 2020. Film.

Tangcay, Jazz. “How Riz Ahmed’s Body Created an Anatomical Symphony for ‘Sound of Metal’ Sound Design”. Variety. 4 December 2020. Accessed: 7 April 2021.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. London. Routledge. 2013.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. London. Hogarth Press. 1931.

RATING 9 / 10
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