Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” is a piece of terrific filmmaking — and its achievements are even more impressive considering Hollywood’s depictions of deafness in the past.
“Sound of Metal,” directed by Darius Marder, stars Riz Ahmed as a heavy-metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing. The film has a three-act structure: Attempts by drummer Ruben to cope; his time spent in a deaf community; and his attempts to re-create his life as it was before the hearing loss.
The heart of the film is the middle segment, when community leader Joe (the excellent Paul Raci) tells Ruben that deafness “is not something to fix” and his assignment is simple: “Learn how to be deaf.”
Director Marder tells Variety, “This film is a wake-up. Most people think of deafness as a physical disability. We don’t understand that it is in fact a culture.”
In the past, most onscreen characters with any disability have been played by able-bodied actors. “I made it very clear that I wasn’t going to represent deaf people unless the actors were deaf or from a deaf culture,” Marder says. By way of example, he adds, “Joe is such a demanding role and some money people saw that as a role for a name actor. It was difficult to tell financiers, ‘We’re not gonna do that.’ ”
This respect of deaf culture makes the film an exception to Hollywood history. Oscar winners include Jane Wyman (“Johnny Belinda”) and Patty Duke (“The Miracle Worker”), and nominees include Alan Arkin (“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”) and Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”). All four played deaf characters, and all four are hearing actors.
Sometimes movies introduce deaf characters for laughs (the Neil Simon “Murder by Death”), or as a plot device in thrillers (the 1987 “Suspect,” “The River Wild,” “Hush,” et al.)
Frequently a film tries to make a supporting character unusual by making them deaf or hard of hearing, including “Creed,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “In the Company of Men,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Nashville.” In the vast majority of these films, the deaf character is alone in a hearing world, with no sense of community.
There are notable exceptions, such as “Children of a Lesser God,” starring Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, and characters played by CJ Jones in “Baby Driver”; Russell Harvard in “There Will Be Blood” and the biopic “The Hammer”; and Millicent Simmonds in “Wonderstruck” and “A Quiet Place.”
Did Marder consider casting a deaf actor to play drummer Ruben?
“I didn’t, because there’s a process that Ruben goes through as a character, and that the actor and the audience will go through. It’s a process of being thrust into a world that’s unfamiliar. Hearing people become the minority. You would lose that element if the actor was deaf, because they would come from a place of comfort.” The audience learns “how to be deaf” at the same time Ruben does and part of the dramatic tension in the film — scripted by Marder, Derek Cianfrance and Abraham Marder — is wondering if Ruben will ever adjust.
After Hollywood’s sad history of deaf depictions, Marder says, “Movies that try to appropriate deaf culture and represent it without proper connections are pretty offensive. Deaf people always remember when someone pretends to be deaf. But I have noticed a generous spirit in the deaf culture. They’re not looking to tear things down.
“The deaf community unfortunately has gotten used to being ignored and dismissed. They are moving from feeling grateful that people even notice that they exist, to realizing that they should be noticed.
“As Paul always says, ‘Nothing about us without us.’ ”