Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal ★★½

This review is a critical look at Sound of Metal's exclusionary stance towards cochlear implants, and the ways in which it personally demeans me as a hard of hearing individual with the procedure. Sound of Metal is a worthwhile film that takes a staunchly traditionalist perspective on deafness, and while I would ultimately recommend it for the mere fact that it is one of the few fictional features that attempts to depict a "deaf perspective," that it comes at the expense of a major segment of the hard-of-hearing community is beyond insulting to me. I can't discuss the film without discussing the plot in depth, and have noted when I begin to go into spoilers. To put it simply though, there is no one "right way" to be deaf. Discourse of this film needs to take into account the minutiae of deaf culture that Sound of Metal is intentionally leaning into, and how damaging a film with this prevalent a platform can be to those whose existence is negatively framed within the film's narrative.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Sound of Metal has built its road over me.

The film is an earnest, touching, incredibly empathetic study of the emotional toll deafness takes. Retrograde hearing loss is a truly terrifying thing to grapple with; I've personally had to reckon with it my entire life, the knowledge that my perception of the world will dim with time, that I will slowly be removed from the understanding all those I hold dear have of the world.

The film is brilliant in its first half, a truly perfect study of the struggle that rationalizing such an acute sense of loss brings. Ruben's temper, his anxiety, his love, and his pain all feels more real than most any film could be able to imagine. When the film engages in the process of coping, and of depicting him coming to terms with his new life and the silence that will forever stifle his world, it is beyond reproach.

When the film engages in traditionalist debates of what it means to be deaf, it is almost reprehensible.

(spoilers below)

As part of its championing of deaf culture, the film vilifies cochlear implants. Within the context of the narrative, deaf culture is (rightfully) portrayed as a valid (and delightfully altruistic) alternative to traditional society. Neither side of the world is without compassion, of course, but it feels right for Ruben to seek a life in the deaf community given the tremendous kindness they have extended to him. Despite this, Ruben (rightfully) grapples with the decision to get an implant, the financial barrier and his own rash impulses making the option feel far out of reach.

It was frankly offensive, then, to see how the film turned the implant for its own gain. Ruben chooses to get the operation, and is ostracized from the community as a result, selling all of his material possessions in order to try and regain his old life. While the film rightfully characterizes this as a betrayal of the progress he had made in moving forwards with his condition, it does so by casting the sound of the implant as a metallic hellscape, less like human listening and more like the grating soundscape of Tetsuo the Iron Man.

The success of the cochlear implant procedure varies wildly from person to person, and it poses such a significant risk that makes it hard to advise for many, especially when the deaf community has so many resources to support those in need. However, I can speak from personal experience to the benefits that implants can bring.

I got my implant at the age of 8, and have tremendously benefited from it ever since. Beyond sounding dimmer than my hearing ear does, it feels just about as natural as sound could ever be. Thanks to the procedure, I have been able to live my life in the hearing world, to perform music, and to pursue the opportunities my family wished for me to have without issue. I sometimes wonder if my life would've been better had I been involved in the deaf community at a young age, but I've only had good things have come from getting the procedure.

Having the film fail in even some of the most basic logistical parts of the operation (such as the lack of a visible bump where the magnets would be in his head, or the fact that he was able to leave the hospital the day after his surgery and walk a considerable distance to return to the deaf retreat despite the severe dizziness/nausea that often comes with the procedure) is insulting when it takes such a toxic approach to portraying the effects of the procedure. Worse is how many people will likely take this film's portrayal at face value; deaf culture rarely receives its due spotlight in mass media, and a film so intimately concerned with the community would have consulted an army of hearing impaired individuals regarding the sensitivity of their portrayal. That they chose to only validate a segment of the broader hard-of-hearing community at the expense of others is a huge error in judgment, and that it comes at the expense of my lived experience made me feel sick to my stomach as the latter half of the movie played itself out.

Sound of Metal uses its platform, so rare as it is, to vilify a valid medical alternative for the sake of extending tragedy. Were the film to focus itself inwards, to expand upon the sequences regarding Ruben's healing and to let him find his stillness in the world at his own pace, the procedure would have been entirely unnecessary and the film would have felt focused. Instead, I was shamed by this movie, one I had placed my faith in to represent the underrepresented, and which I had connected with on a level deeper than most any film I have ever seen prior.

Sound of Metal is not a bad movie, but it is a harmful one. Anyone who sees this movie and thus looks down on cochlear implants is being fed a false narrative, and anyone with an implant who has found peace with their state of living should avoid this altogether. That a film with so much empathy could so pointedly target a minority of a group who share a common challenge is beyond shameful, and I can only hope that discourse about the film evolves to consider just how toxic its messaging becomes at time.

I don't hear the sound of metal when speaking with others, and countless others share my contentment. That my experience would be cast as a life of horror, or a mistake at best, is beyond frustrating to see.

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