by Jordan King
There is a huge difference between hearing and listening, and writer-director Darius Marder alongside co-writer and brother Abraham Marder, explore that difference to profound effect with Sound of Metal. Navigating wildly differing perspectives and outlooks on deafness through audio-based POV shifts as we follow drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and his experience with sudden hearing loss, Marder and his mercurial muse create a cinematic experience that speaks volumes by cutting through the noise and straight to the heart of what it is to be human and to interrogate your entire sense of self.
Marder’s film begins in total darkness as the sound of a distorted electric guitar fills the negative space on screen. Immediately, the sensory experience of Sound of Metal is placed front and centre. As the title card gives way to red and green lights falling on a sweat-dripping stage, the camera locks on to Ahmed’s Ruben Stone. As his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) sings – the couple form heavy metal duo Backgammon – we see Ruben animalistically psyche himself up as he clutches his drumsticks.
When his cue hits, Ruben unleashes a flurry of beats that seem to drown out the rest of the world and beg the question of whether he is playing the drums or the drums are playing him. It’s a pulsating opening made all the more visceral for Ahmed’s clearly live drumming (he trained intensely for six months with Guy Licata and it shows), and for music and sound maestro Nicolas Becker’s extraordinarily evocative sound design.
Early in the film, we get to see what the simple pleasures of sound mean to Ruben and Lou. We watch as the couple dance to old love songs in their motorhome, sing to Meat Loaf as they freewheel from gig to gig, and dip out of their RV to the noise of birds singing, cicadas chittering, and the rain falling overhead. All of these little scenes make the moment Ruben’s hearing begins to falter shortly before a Backgammon gig feel like a bubble of tranquility being burst not only for our protagonist, but for us as well. Though Ruben plays through the gig as best he can, he runs out mid-set in a panic as he realises his hearing isn’t coming back.
The following morning, Ruben reaches out to a doctor, and following a medical examination which brilliantly demonstrates the alienation Ruben is experiencing by visually and aurally oscillating between what the doctor hears and what Ruben’s hearing as he tries to repeat a set of simple words, it becomes clear that the drummer is going deaf. Ahmed’s intensity as he tries to fast-track a cochlear implant so that he can hit the road shows his naivety and his desperation, and when we later learn of his struggles with addiction, the flashes of anger and the need for control that he harbours make perfect sense.
Though Ruben is hellbent on carrying on playing with Lou, offering to operate as a click-track until he can raise the cash for surgery, his girlfriend sees her partner on the edge of a relapse that she herself has been fighting too and arranges for his sponsor to find him a place to come to terms with the reality of his situation. During the scenes where Lou is begging Ruben to get help and not to shut her out, Olivia Cooke truly shines, and it is in these early caustic clashes of want and need that the film’s exploration of the difference between hearing and listening becomes apparent. Ruben can’t hear his girlfriend, which is hard enough. But he also resists listening to her, which is crushing.
Eventually, Ruben’s sponsor sends him to a retreat for recovering addicts who are deaf, run by Paul Raci’s Joe. A child of deaf parents himself, Raci brings great warmth and a fatherly sternness to Joe, whose own hearing was lost after a bomb exploded in Vietnam. Once Lou has convinced Ruben to stay with Joe and the deaf community he has built in a home founded on a philosophy that ‘nothing here needs any fixing’, we see a friendship of sorts blossom between the pair that is as caring as it is complex and occasionally confrontational.
Marder pays great attention to detail in constructing the environment of Joe’s community. Casting deaf actors who all use ASL, which Raci and eventually Ahmed use too, we see dinner table conversations that are a flurry of animated gesticulations and expressive reactions, as well as school classes where – again, cliche as it sounds – we are struck by how intently the children listen in the absence of hearing. There’s an especially powerful moment early in Ruben’s time at Joe’s retreat where he scrawls his name angrily on a whiteboard in capital letters and a child begins to cry – unknowingly, in ink Ruben has roared his name.
Learning to live in this close-knit environment, where every word counts because every part of the body goes into its creation, occupies much of the film’s middle section. It comes as no surprise to learn that Sound of Metal originated as a docu-fiction hybrid project for The Place Beyond the Pines director Derek Cianfrance, as there is an almost verite quality to the way Ruben’s interactions with the deaf community are shot and performed. Even without the ability to hear, Ruben drums in pursuit of peace, and the kids at the deaf school love to feel the vibrations – an unscripted scene where Ruben leads a drumming class is a low-key highlight of the film.
Regardless of the serenity and communal quality of Joe’s retreat however, we are never really convinced that Ruben wants to stay, and as the film wears on, our lead’s hustling to raise money for implants creates friction and ruptures ties that bind him to the deaf community. In a powerful scene between Raci and Ahmed, communicated both verbally and in ASL but told almost entirely in the eyes, the damaging belief that deafness is a problem to be fixed – or to be escaped from – is tackled head on to catastrophic effect. As Ruben journeys onwards and away from the community, there is a nightmarish quality in the robotised electronic soundscape wrought from the cochlear implant that on one level may seem to criticise a technological marvel that has done so much for so many, but that more simply demonstrates how trying to fit in and escape to a fondly remembered past is no path to a peaceful, fulfilling future.
With remarkable performances all round, a stellar technical composition that looks set to (rightfully) direct some well-deserved attention to the sound departments that build whole cinematic worlds for viewers, and a deeply moving underlying message about self-acceptance and the perils of addiction, Sound of Metal is an unforgettable film. So often we talk about films that have something to say, filmmakers who have something to say, but rare is the opportunity to wax lyrical on the power of finding the right way to say it. With this film, Darius Marder and his collaborators have created something of vital importance that is, no hyperbole necessary, revolutionary.
Sound of Metal is out on Amazon Prime now!