TIFF19: Sound of Metal
Sound design is often an afterthought in filmmaking, something that directors determine in post-production to complement the visuals and story, but with Darius Marder’s debut feature, Sound of Metal, sound design is the whole point of the show. This intimate, unrushed character piece follows a heavy metal drummer, Ruben, played with nervous energy and desperation by Riz Ahmed, who loses his hearing. Suddenly thrust into a world he doesn’t recognize, Ruben has to rapidly adjust to life, even as he clings to the hope that he can regain his hearing by getting cochlear implants.
Sound of Metal is about the transition between the hearing and the deaf, trading one culture for another, and as it does so, it swaps a conventional movie soundscape for one that tries to approximate the experience of a deaf person (to be clear, Ruben is deaf, but like many deaf people, he can still hear very loud and high-range sounds). It’s a bold move and gives the film one of the most remarkable sound designs in recent memory. Marder and sound designer Nicolas Becker constantly oscillate between loud and quiet environments to punctuate Ruben’s unbalanced life and the two auditory worlds the film explores. The film starts with a metal show, with Ruben pounding away at the drums as his bandmate and girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), screams the lyrics. The soundtrack is overwhelming, near to bursting with high-decibel vocals and basslines that rumble in your stomach. But the next scene is virtually silent as we watch Ruben and Lou in bed in their airstream.
The key auditory transition comes before a soundcheck when Ruben’s ears pop, like you’d experience ascending in an airplane or getting out of a pool. Except, unlike with those pressurized situations, Ruben’s hearing doesn’t normalize. He can’t hear anything said quietly and during his next show, he can’t hear Lou’s cues. He storms off stage and sees a doctor and discovers that he’s losing his hearing. He doesn’t have the money for cochlear implants, so in the meantime, he has to abandon performing and escape to a home run by the deaf community, away from Lou and the world of sound, in order to adjust to his new reality.
As Ruben transitions between these worlds, the film’s sound design shifts between his subjective experience and the hearing world around him. For a long stretch after his first hearing problem, we only hear the high tones and feedback that he does. For instance, during an evaluation with a doctor, he dons headphones and we hear the voice of the doctor as a tinny sound meeping through the headphones, when in actuality, his voice has been amplified to blistering volumes. In other moments, Marder and Becker bring in normal sound to puncture Ruben’s isolated reality, giving us a whole new comprehension for the events we’re seeing on screen.
Sound of Metal is a depiction of a man stuck between two worlds and an introduction to the intricacies of deaf culture for the character and the audience. This auditory approach is ingenious and plunges the viewer into an unfamiliar world alongside Ruben. Much of the purpose of the film seems to be to introduce Ruben (and by proxy, the audience) to the deaf community, its language, social conventions, and ways of operating in the world. While Ruben’s disability has him frantically working to regain his hearing, mentors he meets in the deaf community, especially Joe (Paul Raci), who runs the home he stays at, try to convince him that deafness is not about absence, but a new way of being present. Instead of bemoaning his loss of hearing, Joe argues, Ruben needs to learn to communicate through sign language and learn to appreciate the silence and stillness of his new world.
But Ruben, a recovering drug addict, finds himself yearning for sound the way he yearns for dope. He learns to sign and starts to bond with fellow members of the deaf community, but he only ever sees the signing as a stop-gap on his return to hearing. In essence, Sound of Metal plays as a variation on an addict’s journey, with rock bottom, recovery, relapse, and finally healing. However, the problem with this approach is that hearing is not an addiction.
To be fair, it understandable why Marder approaches the film this way. The mirroring between hearing and addiction allows Marder to add a familiar narrative arc to an otherwise experimental film. It grounds his story and conveys the message about the need for large-scale transformation and the willing abandonment of old ways that is necessary to thrive while living with a disability. However, it also frames a late-film character choice as relapse in a way that is too prescriptive of Ruben and reductive in general.
Riz Ahmed is exceptional in the lead role and many of the supporting characters register strongly, especially Paul Raci as Joe. But the hearing-as-addiction approach makes the themes register as if they apply to all people, not just Ruben. This becomes most problematic in the final moments, which play for epiphany and catharsis, but end up being almost condescending to people who don’t want to accept a world-shattering change in their lives. (I’m aware of the controversy about this subject in the deaf community, but every person can make their own decisions about life.) Because however much Ruben is holding onto the past, and however much he needs to approach the world in a new way, hearing is not an addiction, and a person who doesn’t want to give up their formative sensory way of experiencing the world is not the same as an addict who can’t give up dope.
Thus, Sound of Metal is a film of note due to its groundbreaking sound design. But as a narrative, it lacks the subtlety and truth of its exceptional filmmaking.
7 out of 10
Sound of Metal (USA, 2019)
Directed by Darius Marder; written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder, based on a story by Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance; starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Almaric, Domenico Toledo.