Spoilers for Sound of Metal.
The topic of representation in Hollywood films usually leaves out a large underrepresented group: disabled people. Despite the fact that there’s no shortage of stories about them, those stories come with a myriad of problems, such as inspiration porn. Coined by late disability activist Stella Young, the term refers to media that depicts disabled people as inspiring to the non-disabled audience just because of their disability. Along with this, disabled people rarely get to play themselves on screen, making the possibility of being able to tell realistic stories even slimmer.
“Oscar bait” films are riddled with these stereotypes. Films such as The Theory of Everything, The King’s Speech and Stronger all depict an inspirational story of someone overcoming their disability. They have been criticized for their simple narratives that center able-bodied perspectives and ideas instead of showing the depth and intricacies of a disabled person’s experiences and personality. This is such a prevalent trope that it’s become a running joke that “cripping up” gives an actor a ticket to awards buzz.
The safe route for disability stories is an oft-trodden one. But a new movie that has generated awards buzz rejects this route, and instead shows the many facets of the Deaf culture it represents.
Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder, follows the drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed), one half of the metal band Blackgammon he has with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), as he loses his hearing. Being a recovered addict, he starts living at a place for Deaf addicts out of precaution. There, he learns sign language and Deaf culture at a nearby school for the Deaf, and has to grapple with the possibility of having to give up music.
One aspect of the film that stood out to me the most was the depth of the characters. While this may seem like a given for any movie, the cast of characters, even the minor ones, showed a distinct sense of humanity and personality. Paul Raci’s (who is a child of Deaf parents) Joe, Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff’s teacher Diane, and of course Ahmed’s Rueben are personal favorites who shine through with depth. They’re so real that they make you want to jump into the screen and hang so you could hang out with them. This adds more heart and humanity to the film.
Comparing Sound of Metal to other disability fluff-filled movies that had Oscar prospects, this is an upgrade. The disabled characters in those movies rarely get to live a life that isn’t 100% revolved around their disability. They always either succumb to or overcome some ailment, and all of the characters, especially the disabled ones, never actually get to showcase that, yes, people can have fruitful, insightful, or interesting lives even while living with a disability. Sound of Metal shows this, in scenes like when Rueben and his new friend at the rehab center Jenn (played by Deaf actress Chelsea Lee) design her a tattoo, or when Rueben plays with the students at the Deaf school. These scenes do fit into the tone of the movie, but their inclusion is larger than that, a huge aspect that these types of narratives always lack.
Another welcome deviation from typical narratives comes at the end of the movie, when Rueben gets a cochlear implant so that he could revive his music career. Because of the unique sound design, at many points in the movie, the audience is able to hear what Rueben would (or wouldn’t) hear. When he gets the implant, the world sounds scratchy and robotic. By the end of the movie, Rueben decides to call it quits on good terms with Lou and his drumming career, and he takes out his implants and just sits with the silence
This part is enlightening in a few ways. Many hearing people don’t understand why Deaf people would pass up on a “cure” for their lack of hearing. On the flip side, the Deaf community has been resistant to cochlear implants because of the many complications that could come with them. They believe that deafness isn’t something that needs to be cured, and “cures” like cochlear implants aren’t going to instantly make one’s quality of life better, like they are advertised.
The Deaf community’s resistance to cochlear implants have confused many hearing people, since they’re unable to experience the implants themselves. However, letting audiences hear what Rueben hears when he uses his implant could be an opportunity to enlighten people about the truth of cochlear implants.
The great representation aside, Sound of Metal is an extremely well-made film. As touched upon before, the sound design is immersive, capturing Rueben’s progression to deafness beautifully. The story and themes make an impact and will leave you thinking about the movie for days. Darius Marder is a director to look out for, especially considering this is his first feature.
Deaf people have often been left out of movies because people believe that their perspective isn’t needed, but Sound of Metal proves that anyone’s experiences can be put to screen. Sound of Metal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime for people who wish to see it.