Warning: This review references self-harm and audism (discrimination towards deaf people). It also contains spoilers.
Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, in which Riz Ahmed’s tattooed drummer Ruben Stone comes to terms with sudden deafness, makes a distorted case for silence. Its opening scenes, in contrast, are overwhelmingly loud. Topless under shining lights, Ahmed commences a relentless, pounding drum solo, all while staring at partner and fellow band member Lou (Olivia Cooke). Together, they are Blackgammon, touring the states in their RV and playing loud, heavy metal gigs on the regular.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that after drumming away with no hearing protection (especially after being told by an audiologist to remove himself from loud environments), Ruben is told he has lost 70 percent of his hearing. With a reaction full of disdain and denial – the latter being the first stage of grief, I should add – the heroin addict is quick to push towards what he perceives is the ‘solution’: paying for the expensive surgery known as cochlear implantation.
At this point, one must stress that cochlear implants are absolutely not a ‘fix’, ‘cure’ or ‘solution’ to deafness – a view considered incredibly audist (that is, discriminatory against the deaf community) alongside being inaccurate. As the film itself later goes on to point out, in two of its strongest and most commendable messages, cochlear implants don’t magically restore your hearing (despite what those viral switch-on videos would have you believe), and deaf people are more of the view that you should accept your deaf identity – whether that be with hearing technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, or not.
These ideas, rather philosophical in nature, are condensed into quotable sentences from Ruben’s Deaf mentor, Joe (played by hearing actor Paul Rica, who is the child of Deaf adults – also known as a CODA). It’s about “a solution to this”, he says, pointing to his head, “not this“, pointing to his ears. “Everybody here shares in the belief that being Deaf is not a handicap, not something to fix,” he says in another scene. As Ruben settles in to life in the therapy group, Joe makes his role clear: he must “learn to be deaf”.
This brings us to an issue which, arguably, surrounds the majority of the discourse about this movie. Ahmed, in the title role, is hearing and not deaf. Some have argued that this is necessary, given the fact that Ruben starts off as a hearing character, but others have taken a far more critical view in relation to non-disabled actors playing disabled roles.
In a letter to the Academy, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in the US said that awards received by the cast and crew of Sound of Metal had been “driven by offensive pity”, and called on the awarding body to exclude the film’s hearing actors from any nominations or accolades.
Yet there is some justification in the whole ‘learn to be Deaf’ narrative. In addition to being taught to play the drums for the role, Ahmed had to learn American Sign Language and gain some understanding (though not first-hand experience, mind) of what it’s like to be Deaf. In a sense, Ruben learning to be Deaf could very well be a recital of Ahmed’s learning – albeit with some interpretation on the deafness part. After all, the sound design in the film – for which it won a BAFTA – regularly demonstrates what Ruben’s world is like. We are very much on this journey of discovery with him.
However, while the actor’s portrayal is remarkably striking and convincing (I could relate strongly to the high emotions, such as denial, which can come with a diagnosis), the same progression from hearing to Deaf could well be covered by an actor who became Deaf in later life. They would have a knowledge of sign language already, along with experience of life both as a hearing person and a deaf person – Ahmed only has a personal account of the former.
Then, as mentioned previously, Raci is a CODA, and while that means he has a close connection to the Deaf community and thus, sign language, it isn’t the same as that of a Deaf actor. We’ve seen the occasional Deaf mentor in recent media portrayals (Frankie in BBC’s EastEnders immediately springs to mind), but this particular performance feels somewhat unsettling – a sage master who almost becomes a Deaf saviour for a former hearing person. There’s no denying that there are role models or individuals in the Deaf community who can teach newbies about the culture and the relevant sign language (heck, I had my share of these people when I was first diagnosed myself), but I can’t help but feel like a Deaf actor would have made his role less mystical, and done a better job of veering away from the ‘mentor archetype’. There’s a risk that Raci’s Joe, as a wise sage, could very well exaggerate the unhealthy fascination hearing people have towards the Deaf community and its language, which is really not the point this two-hour-long movie is trying to make.
Other characters are either poorly developed, or criminally underused. The only major Deaf actress in the film, The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Ridloff, plays teacher Diane with her trademark playfulness and humour, showcasing sign language with genuine enthusiasm. Cooke’s Lou, meanwhile, is jarring, serving only as a catalyst for Ruben to accept the offer of help from Joe, and even then, that only really happens after she leaves him to give him space. The reason for all this, by the way, is because seeing Ruben struggle could very well trigger her self-harm again, and while sympathetic to this sensitive issue, there is something rather unsettling about that idea. We see it in an email from Lou to Ruben while he is at the house receiving support from Joe: “Knowing that you are being so brave right now is keeping me alive,” it reads. In the end, her character only offers up exhausting pity and inspiration porn.
It could have been worse had Sound of Metal concluded with Ruben getting an implant and appearing to be satisfied with the decision. Many stories follow this narrative of a deaf person up until they get the relevant hearing technology, then wrap it up there, assuming that such a point is the end of their hearing journey. While this film does not stray that far, it does fall into some pretty embarrassing and avoidable inaccuracies around certain aspects of deafness. Ruben confirms to one individual that he’s “hearing” after having the implant fitted (most cochlear implant users still see themselves as deaf, and the devices do not restore hearing), the audiologist in earlier scenes talks about individuals who are “completely deaf” (it’s highly unlikely that somebody profoundly deaf will have no residual hearing at all) and Ruben is able to hear someone on a doorbell buzzer (despite his cochlear implants distorting sound and buzzers being incredibly difficult to catch with hearing aids anyway).
All of this undermines commendable accuracy in other sections of the film, from audiologists shouting out your name when they’re ready for you, to the use of written communication as an alternative, to the withdrawal that can come from inaccessible social gatherings. This sense of isolation, in particular, is arguably the main focus of Sound of Metal, as Joe encourages Ruben to find the “stillness” in a noisy and chaotic life (albeit in a conversation which sees the mentor disapprove of Ruben’s implants, which isn’t exactly the best tone to set for a film about embracing a Deaf identity). Such an objective from Joe is quite profound, yet it lacks the necessary emphasis to prevent the film’s conclusion from being seen as anything but abrupt.
Sound of Metal is loud and fluctuates in an emotional character study from Riz Ahmed, but as a story littered with questionable stances on deaf issues, problematic casting decisions and a bit too much pity porn, it could do with cutting some of the white noise.
Sound of Metal is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video UK. It is due to be screened in cinemas from 17 May.
Photo: Courtesy of TIFF.