Sound of Metal
A rare exploration into the deaf world with some deft sound design and masterful acting
Films about sensory disabilities are rare. The majority explore blindness, as it is the disability that can be played with in a visual medium with most ease, but the likes of muteness and deafness have been too intimidating for many filmmakers to take on. Deaf characters have been featured in some films, but to find one that deals with the subject itself is scarce. There was a harrowing Ukrainian film about a boarding school for deaf kids called The Tribe (2014), which seemed to be intent on showing the anger and cruelty that can come from the intersection of adolescence and disability. Not until today have we gotten an English language (somewhat) mainstream film exploring this particular issue.
Sound of Metal (2019) was a festival darling film that was heavily delayed due to the pandemic. We’ve finally been able to see it through Amazon Prime. The film follows the heavy metal musicians Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke). The pair tour around the US living in their RV, playing nights at different clubs. However, Ruben’s hearing starts to distort, until he loses 70% of his hearing during a concert. Panicked, Ruben rushes to a doctor and learns that he has a deteriorating hearing, the causes of which could either be a disease or exposure to loud noises. Ruben is sunk headfirst into the world of deafness, being ripped from his old life and his music.
Sound of Metal is the feature directorial debut of the frequent screenwriting partner of Derek Cianfrance: Darius Marder. It proves to be an incredibly promising debut, as Marder is not afraid to play with style and form in order to make Ruben’s experience all the more accessible for viewers. I enjoyed that Sound of Metal didn’t drop us in the middle of the story as The Tribe did, but rather chose to follow the journey of a person who becomes deaf, discovering a new world that can be both scary and comforting. As would be fitting for a film about such a subject, Marder particularly plays with the sound design of his film. Another more simple-minded director might choose to mute the film when Ruben becomes deaf, it would have been an interesting if slightly gimmicky choice. Marder risks a much more complex choice, in which he has his scenes switching from mute, to playing with full sound. Other times he’ll use a mixture of both at the same time, emphasizing one sound above the rest and vice versa. It proves to bring our attention (for those who are not deaf) to this sense that many will take for granted. However, the aspect that I was most fascinated by, was how Marder played with silence.
The sound design for this film is absolutely inspirational; it truly puts to the fore an often-ignored branch of filmmaking in a way that mainstream viewers will be able to appreciate. Marder and his use of silence in the film is not employed simply by turning off the sound, there is still an underlying rumble throughout. This is Marder’s way of infusing the sense of touch through the film. The way that many deaf people can experience sound and music despite their hearing not working is through vibrations. Given that Ruben is a drummer this connection to vibration and the percussion of the world was all the more impactful and insightful in how he will be forced to experience the world now. I’ve mentioned it before in previous reviews, such as the one onAmmonite (2020), but sound in film can prove to be a doorway to indirectly introduce the sense of touch or physical feeling to viewers. Marder seems to understand this right away in only his first film.
Marder is not only focused in achieving a technically accurate and immersive experience for viewers, however, his focus on character is also prevalent. The choice of his character being a musician to lose his hearing was an incredibly poetic endeavor, no doubt many will see some semblance of a nod to Beethoven’s fate. It is a challenging wrench to throw into his narrative, where the protagonist is completely left completely helpless and at mercy towards the beginning of the film. This is not a step many screenwriters will take, to introduce a protagonist as irritated and defenseless. This narrative choise causes a seeping frustration and desperation to build up throughout the film to the point of inevitable outburst. Marder creates an easy-to-follow arc of emotion and recognition for both Ruben and non-deaf viewers to understand how the seeming setback that deafness can end up being a gift. This latter part is the crucial theme that Marder wants to explore, and it sneakily not made apparent until the last scene of the film. It is only then that we realize how carefully Marder had been building up his message, and his narrative construction helps deliver it home with the utmost impact.
Sound of Metal is entirely Ruben’s story and as such it is on Ahmed’s shoulders to carry the film. The British actor has already proven to be a bold performer, from his work in the likes of Nightcrawler (2014) or the HBO miniseries The Night Of (2016). In Sound of Metal Ahmed brings his trademarked restraint from his previous roles but also starts to let loose. His Ruben is a very expressive character and Ahmed is able to show such outgoingness with relative ease; you completely buy into his Rockstar persona. Yet Ahmed wisely retains his skills and showcasing his characters suppressing their emotions to a boiling point. This is an incredibly useful skillset for Ahmed to utilize in Sound of Metal as it helps transmit the sense of frustration and despair to viewers with mere glances and pauses.
In the end, Sound of Metal is an incredibly strong directorial debut from Marder. It is a much needed entry in the exploration of deaf people’s lives and is done so with a technical risk and mastery that delivers some truly pioneering cinematic sound experiences. Ahmed is able to bring about a semblance of balance, both honoring the plight of his character’s journey, while also communicating a complex clashing of emotions. In the end, the film proves to be a rather empowering message for deaf people, showcasing their difference as not something to dread, but rather a gift, used to learn to be more present and at peace with the chaotic, loud world.