Change is an inevitable part of our lives, and even that can take many forms. New jobs, new living spaces, and losing friends and family members over time are a couple of instances. When you’re in a particular routine, you don’t think of the possibilities of things in your body going wrong. Especially when you’re of a young age. This sense of invincibility washes over you. 5% of the world’s population has experienced some type of hearing loss. Our senses are vital to our everyday makeup but picture just suddenly losing one. One that makes up your identity to where you have to find a new one and how lost you would feel.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are a metal-duo in the band, Black Gammon, and a couple of four years. One day, while playing a gig, Ruben loses his hearing. The movie does an interesting thing where it shows a contrast to his daily regime, before and after. In a considerable panic, Ruben sees a doctor who tells him about an expensive surgery, but that he has to work to preserve the little hearing that he has. If he continues to play music, he’ll risk losing his hearing for good.
Riz Ahmed wanted to make his role feel authentic, so he worked with ASL coach Jeremy Lee Stone and learned to play drums for four months. So much of this movie is intelligently told through sound design. Director Darius Marder puts us in Ruben’s shoes, often hearing at the level that he does. Working together with cinematographer Daniël Bouqet, they use camera shots, volume, and points of view to note other people talking to him. The sudden jumps in sound quality further push the anxiety of somebody having their world turned upside down. Think about the harshness of metal music – it’s confrontational. It’s grading. What Marder does is use this in a couple of ways; as the film goes on, the sound gets softer as the absence of that style of music grows. In contrast to the loudness of the first act, things like the wind sliding through the grass take prominence.
The story itself, co-written by Marder and Derek Cianfrance, is also an inner journey that Ruben has to take that goes past hearing things. He’s thrown into a sudden identity crisis and with him being a former addict, there’s a fear of him relapsing. Ruben goes to a deaf community and meets the chief counselor, Joe (Paul Raci). He’s in such a hurry to return to the life he led, but the lessons that Joe was about to teach him were more valuable than music can bring. There’s a journey that is forged that allows the audience to see deafness in a light that they don’t normally get to see.
The community doesn’t allow their condition to determine their outward look at the world. They have lively conversations at the dinner table, and the kids at a school for the deaf are just as attentive and fun as ever. Ruben starts his journey trying to verbalize and feels disoriented. It’s when he integrates and accepts his new normal, that he becomes a part of the community itself.
Ahmed’s performance is powerful in the way he mixes both verbal and non-verbal cues. He is to convey the shock within facial expressions that draw you in. His struggles with hearing loss, finding himself, and ultimately, love are things that anybody relates to. You root for him to succeed and also understand his attachments to his past. While she’s in the movie in breaks, Olivia Cooke as Lou is also memorable. She serves as the audience’s point of view, but also has her own set of issues to deal with. The band itself speaks to the bond between Ruben and Lou. It’s two people who love each other very much, but their union which is the music is not exactly the healthiest thing for them.
What the movie shows through time is the transformation of Ruben’s addiction. It’s not so much with substances, but the need to reclaim his old life while the world moves on. Our comfort zones can be a safe place, but also an echo chamber where we can’t see anything outside our needs. Marder has not only comprised a masterful story that shows being deaf is not something to be ashamed of, but also how grasping onto the past can hurt ourselves and others.