More Than a Film, ‘Sound of Metal’ Is an Immersive, Transformative Experience
Movies are such a passive activity for the most part — kick back, eat your popcorn, laugh or cry or scream, as the case may be — that we tend to get frazzled by the ones that aim to replicate a character’s experience via film technique. If you don’t want to take drugs to know how a speed freak feels, you can spend two hours with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and know exactly what it’s like through its manic editing, distorted points-of-view and a warts-and-all performance by Ellen Burstyn. Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst puts you in the dark with its kidnapped protagonist for long stretches of time, until you feel both the sense of fear and relief that daylight brings with it.
Darius Marder’s film Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben, a rock drummer quickly losing his hearing, may be the top of its class as an immersive, transformative viewing experience. We’re primed from the beginning — before any images flood the screen — with sound, partially muffled, occasionally clear, ebbing and flowing towards the figure of the shirtless drummer listening, intensely, for his cue. As he leans into the cacophony of the goth-metal music he creates with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), in the duo Blackgammon, you feel his liberation in the music while aware of his slight discomfort. And as that concern develops with the degeneration of Ruben’s hearing, our own discomfort and empathy grows in proximity.
For most of the film we hear only what Ruben does — in whatever gnarled or submerged or distorted manner the director, and his sound designer Nicolas Becker, presents to us.
“It was really a kind of unique, one-of-a-kind sound design process,” Ahmed has said of his work on the film Sound of Metal. “And its director, Darius Marder, began the sound design process with Nicolas Becker, who’s an incredible sound designer, I think, a couple of years, almost, before they started the movie — before they’d cast the role. And it was something that was very unique. So to give you an example of the kind of thing that would happen, in this film, after every scene, Nicolas would come up to me with a strange kind of object from the future — some kind of, like, hexagonal orb that he had 3D printed, put it against my chest and say, blink. And now swallow. Now lick your lips. Now breathe. Now hold your breath, so I can just hear your heartbeat. And the entire sound design of the film largely is made up from inside Ruben’s head. So it’s a deeply subjective auditory experience, and one that mirrors the experience of hearing loss to some extent. When people lose some of their external hearing, they kind of — their vibrational hearing that comes through their bodily processes goes up in the mix. So it’s something that really places you in this kind of first-person experience.”
No doubt this will drive a lot of viewers batty, accustomed, as they are, to hearing every expensive explosion and technological wizardry money can buy. It took me 15 minutes to acclimate to the audio (and the subtitles and closed captioning that are part and parcel of the film), but once I did, I noticed how effectively Marder and Becker use these techniques, most especially when they consciously aren’t employed (for example, once Ruben is embedded in a deaf community house, and since he does not know sign language, many of the conversations going on around him are left unclarified).
None of the gadgetry would mean squat if it wasn’t for the director’s dogged vision and a superlative performance from his star. Ruben is a recovering addict, four years sober. In lesser hands, that detail would be exploited against temptation (no one could blame the drummer for falling off the wagon). Marder isn’t interested in clichés; Ruben’s addiction and his steadfast sobriety are signs of his strength, his resilience. His self-pity is — and most likely has always been — the seed of his undoing. So it’s a relief when Lou, at the direction of their manager, leaves Ruben in the care of Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who oversees a group home for the deaf and is tasked with preparing Ruben to live a full life as a deaf man.
The scenes between Joe and Ruben are the soul of Sound of Metal. The weary interactions between the strangers deepen the central conflict of the film. This isn’t a plot-heavy movie or a medical thriller in which the hero braves life and limb to find a cure. Joe, and the members of the group home (played primarily by deaf or hearing-impaired actors), are not handicapped, and the biggest hurdle facing Ruben is coming to accept that he is now part of deaf culture.
“Yes, certainly the recognition of culture,” Marder has said about making his film Sound of Metal, “but what does that really mean? It’s one thing to say it, and another thing to actually experience, so I could go deaf tomorrow. That doesn’t make me culturally deaf. Cultural deafness is something you’re born into. And one of the amazing surprises of working with the deaf community is that when deaf people communicate with each other, you can’t be looking at a phone and talking at the same time. You can’t even look away. You have to be engaged because that’s how you listen. You listen with your eyes and so there’s an engagement that’s much more present than in hearing culture and there’s a sickness in hearing culture, which is the sickness of distraction. We have the hubris to think we can do all these things at the same time and in fact, we can’t. We’re really not present in any of them. So you really experience that when working with the deaf community. They’re very, very present and very engaged.”
The “sickness of distraction,” as the director puts it, is what Joe has to solve for in the film Sound of Metal; he has to find a way to steer Ruben towards a place of stillness, or what he defines, without any religious intent, as the “kingdom of God.” He asks the novice to quell his anxieties and turmoil by diarizing; putting thoughts to paper until he flattens his edges, dulls the negativity of his inner voices. The idea is anathema to Ruben; a drummer by trade, yes, but also by nature. He needs to keep things in motion; he has no idea how to conceptualize the idea of rhythm without sound.
Sound of Metal is grim though it is not hopeless. Whether Ruben finds his kingdom of God or continues down a reckless path is left unanswered. Marder’s end shot, slowly fading all sound until there is just the wash of daylight across Ruben’s face as he stares unblinking into the camera, teases with a potent ambiguity. Is this a moment of defeat or one of awakening? Can he engage once again with the world or will he retreat into a metaphorical silence that threatens each and every one of us?
That I cared this much was a testament to the power of Ahmed’s austere, intuitive performance, and the techniques employed so masterfully by Marder and his crew that it was tough to keep any critical distance. I was devastated and elated. Most of the time, with the garbage thrown our way as prestige filmmaking, I’m happy to settle for being merely entertained.