Changing senses

Jo Atkinson is a clinical psychologist, who works with people who have experienced life-changing brain conditions, and is also a deaf person who has lost most of her sight. Here, she reviews new film Sound of Metal.

This is must-see film for anyone interested in the human capacity to adapt to unwanted change. It is a painstaking study of a musician learning how to be deaf. It follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer with addiction issues, as he grieves the near-total loss of his hearing. The film explores his fierce resistance and the drive to keep moving forward, if only we can allow ourselves to stop looking back.

It is a story about the restoration of wholeness, and not feeling broken. We see this in Joe, a deafened Vietnam veteran, who runs a retreat for deaf addicts, and found existential peace through embracing American Sign Language. He encourages Ruben to look for stillness among the experts, people who have always been deaf, and do not see deafness as something that needs to be fixed. A deft touch is that the deaf addicts are also struggling with change. 

This film explores loss of hearing, but does not ignore the gains of deafness. It offers the restless Ruben a place to be, and powerful validation in Deaf space. It presents deafness as an identity, a community and a rare sense of togetherness that transcends wider societal division. It intimates the joy that can be found in broader sensory awareness, and highlights a deaf superpower – the enviable ability to switch-off noise. 

The loss of a sense encourages existential exploration, revealing hidden dimensions and possibilities. The film hints at how Ruben, who, in the opening scene, gives an intensely physical drumming performance, with every sinew an embodiment of sound, might come to embrace the physicality of sign language. A scene where he taps out vibrating rhythms to communicate with a deaf child, as he lies on a playground slide, points to an opportunity for expansion, in both music, and life. 

The film has a rare authenticity when it comes to its portrayal of the Deaf Community. Everything in the film rings true, from thumping the table to get visual-attention, to the shrug when a glass is knocked over by exuberant signing. We see Ruben bestowed with the sign name 'Owl', in a nod to his wide-eyed bewilderment. He, and the hearing audience, may not register the rite of passage, yet his potential to belong is clear. This realistic portrayal of deaf people on film, with deaf mannerisms, natural communication, and characters that are more than just totems, is a welcome relief after misrepresentation. 

The storytelling forces a binary medical or cultural choice on Ruben. I winced as he was asked to leave the therapeutic community after cochlear implant surgery. Implantation does not prevent cultural membership of the Deaf community, and does not cure deafness, it simply brings more change, and another whole way of being deaf, to adjust to. Nonetheless, the effective plot asks whether Ruben is being rejected or doing the rejecting. With or without medical intervention there is no going back.

It is an ableist film told wholly from hearing audience’s viewpoint, but we do get a genuine glimpse of the deaf perspective. The open-captions describe every sound in detail, adding intensity and inclusion for both hearing and deaf audiences. Amazon Prime robs us of a deeper artistic experience by removing them. I recommend switching on the closed-captions. 

The opening lyrics howled, “Take me there!”, but only Ruben can choose the direction of travel. Some doors close and others stand ajar. The question is, which doors will he push? The film’s achievement lies in inviting us to occupy both his ears and his mind; and to ponder how we, ourselves, would respond to such monumental change. 

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