(Note: I wrote this for another outlet but we all failed to remember that someone else reviewed it. So as to not waste the review, I’m running it here instead. Enjoy!)
Darius Marder’s debut feature Sound of Metal opens with droning cacophony and nearly ends with more of the same, until his protagonist makes the conscious choice to shut it out. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), one half of stoner doom duo Blackgammon, is deaf. He didn’t start out that way. Spending one’s time behind drums, thundering down percussion on snares and cymbals while the frontwoman’s guitar grinds and her vocals wail, isn’t exactly conducive for one’s aural health. But just under two hours past the starting point of Marder’s screenplay, Ruben’s caught between his old identity, his new identity, and the distorted screech of his cochlear implant. What’s a musician to do?
Sound of Metal’s stance on hearing impairment and deafness is couched in its midsection, when Ruben takes an extended stay at a halfway house for the deaf. He’s not only a drummer: He’s also an addict, clean for four years but with his sobriety in jeopardy following his sudden hearing loss. Ruben takes the shock of his circumstances badly. Most would. He freaks out, trashes the RV he lives in with his bandmate and long term girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), manically claims that his hearing will return even when he knows in his heart that it won’t. Marder couches the story so firmly in Ruben’s point of view that mistaking his animus and terror over his deafness as a comment on or a swipe at deafness is impossible: This isn’t a movie about deafness as a hateful inconvenience, but a movie about a man who takes a boot to the seat of his pants, then scrabbles to dust himself off and immediately, desperately, foolishly attempts to return to life as he once knew it.
It isn’t possible. Bless him for trying. Marder’s deep, abiding sympathy for Ruben’s flailing response to his dilemma drives Sound of Metal as surely as Ahmed’s performance: He’s more pitiable than pathetic, verging on too stubborn for his own good. That’s Ruben at his worst. The film carefully orbits Ahmed to give him space for communicating the character’s rapid, vibrating discontent. He can’t hold it together or keep calm for more than a few seconds at a time, like someone stuffed a whole damn charm of hummingbirds into a man suit and put them behind a 4-piece drum kit. It’s his eyes, or if it isn’t his eyes it’s his twitching chin, or if it isn’t his chin it’s his hands wrapping around his face. There’s hardly a moment where Ruben can simply exist. He can’t stop. He’s always in motion.
He’s in motion from the moment Sound of Metal begins, playing a show with Lou and plying his noisy trade with nearly religious zeal, to the moment he arrives at that halfway house, where Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet and the house’s caretaker. Joe sees Ruben. That act of seeing adds a layer of intimacy to the film, different from the layer of intimacy between Ruben and Lou: Where they have romantic intimacy, Joe has the intimacy of shared experience. He was Ruben once. He lost everything because he, unlike Ruben, didn’t have someone who knew what he was going through, though grant that Joe went deaf on a battlefield and Ruben went deaf at a concert. It isn’t quite the same. But Sound of Metal wisely argues that they’re same enough.
Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Abraham, relies on his cinematographer, Daniël Bouqet, to maintain that intimacy through proximity. Sound of Metal prefers working in close-up. That direction makes sense: Hardly a minute goes by where Ruben isn’t given the highest visual consideration as the audience’s anchor to the film’s world. But Marder doesn’t treat his supporting cast as window dressing, either. For all the word out of Sundance about Ahemd’s excellent acting—and he is excellent—Raci is the movie’s secret weapon, a child of deaf adults and a member of the Black Sabbath tribute band Hands of Doom ASL ROCK, and fittingly enough a veteran himself. Most of all he’s charming. The guy’s a natural. Watching him perform means watching him exist. Like the film’s other deaf actors, notably The Walking Dead’s Lauren Ridloff, there’s a performative component to the use of ASL, but Marder, Bouqet, the cast, and the movie itself appear to understand that component as expression. ASL is tied to more than the hands. It’s in the face, the chest, the legs, and so Bouqet’s camera labors to capture the totality of the language as Ruben slowly learns, in Joe’s words, how to be deaf.
Given the film’s Sundance premiere, there will be a temptation among some to compare Sound of Metal to Whiplash. But Whiplash is self-satisfied junk about nothing, and Sound of Metal is about something: The desire, the need, to be able to do the thing you’re trained to do and finding yourself unable to do it. In that way the film measures more closely with The Wrestler, but with a touch more optimism and less nihilism. But inhabiting deaf life, both through depiction of deaf life and through sound design representing deafness in muffled tones, sets Sound of Metal in its own category.
(Sound of Metal is now available for streaming on Amazon.)