New Film of the Week: Sound of Metal
When faced with a sudden life-changing event, it is implicit and understood that some form of sacrifice must be made as a consequence. Less understood in that moment is that it is almost always better to sacrifice the existence and comforts of old; to move forward and learn new means of coping and finding peace, rather than to sacrifice the future in hopes of reclaiming a past, lost ‘normal.’
In Sound of Metal, heavy metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed), immediately and without warning, loses the majority of his hearing. Soon after, he is warned that without change he will lose it all. In Darius Marder’s assured fiction debut, Ruben’s struggles are formed from a reckoning between these two forms of sacrifice, as he stymies his own growth in pursuit of continuation with his life as it was. All of this is assisted by fear, longing, frustration, and every other emotion expected in such a situation. Within the opening scenes of Sound of Metal, Ruben is established first as a ferociously focused drummer and then a contented man of routine. He drinks earthy green smoothies every morning and cares for his bandmate and partner Lou (Olivia Cooke). He has his health, his relationship and his music; to paraphrase Fiona Apple, his holy trinity.
After becoming deaf, these three stabilising forces become unmoored, as Lou convinces him to stop playing in the band, uproot his life and go alone to a centre run by deaf Vietnam veteran Joe (Paul Raci) for deafened recovered addicts. We learn this last piece about Ruben in snippets, and it contextualises Ruben’s uncertainty. He’s faced one such major life change in his recovery from addiction, and his determination to cling to the now-insufficient coping mechanisms which saved him once before leaves him fearing that progression and regression may as well be the same thing. Marder is a generous director, and allows Ruben and Sound of Metal the space to breathe. We follow Ruben at a relaxed pace and bear witness as he struggles to learn to be comfortable with the silence. In the final scene, for audience and character alike and with the context of all the hardship faced to get to that moment, completely inhabiting the silence has the power to make your breathing feel deep and conscious.
Supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker’s experimental sound design has been appropriately acclaimed for how it successfully recreates the sounds Ruben would experience (in the last 24 hours alone, Sound of Metal has secured DGA win for Marder and a BAFTA for the sound team). Becker and his team researched the sounds experienced by d/Deaf people in depth so as to respectfully depict them as close to reality as possible. As Ruben’s hearing deteriorates, Becker employs an astounding amount of ingenious recording methods to imitate it. Chiefly, he and his team focused on creating vibrational hearing, and ‘body sound.’ Foley artist Heikki Kossi was credited with attaching microphones to his body to pick up the low frequency vibrations of movement that could be retained by Ruben; Becker recorded Ahmed’s breathing, heartbeat, blinking, all through a highly sensitive ‘stethoscope.’ They depicted feeling sound through low vibrations—as little as physical contact with an object, such as when Ruben drums on a metal slide so that a Deaf child may feel his music. Furthermore microphones were set up to record at varying frequencies to create as deep and realistic an aural atmosphere as possible for each stage of Rubens loss of hearing.
The effect is highly evocative, as the audience is given access to, for the time being, cinemas most realistic expression of deafness to help us feel Ruben’s story more emphatically. Marder and Becker alternate between subjective and objective sounds, we experience the filmic world as it is for the hearing as it is for the deaf; for instance, through the perspective of a cochlear implant, we hear the unusual effect of individual sounds at unexpected volumes; non-directional, emitting from all around. We can therefore relate to the discomfort that causes to someone who has yet to adjust to it. The cinematography defers to the sound design; subtlety and restraint in Daniël Bouquet’s lens serving to augment this sound-driven narrative. The camerawork defines perspective, closing in on Ruben to lock into his subjective hearing, moving further away for the objective listener. This is furthered throughout the film, as the usual framing of Ruben as close-up, closed up, too focused on the loss of his deafness becomes freer when living in the recovery centre. By necessity for Ruben, the camera retracts, opens up, as Ruben learns to sign and hands and bodies become integral in communication. As camera defers to sound, and sound defers to narrative, it’s all in service of the same ideal: respectful representation, empathetically expressed.
Much has been made of the cast in this regard too, not just for the authenticity of casting d/Deaf supporting actors, but for the lead trio’s dedication to respectfully depicting the characters intersecting with this community. On the outside, Cooke serves an ultimately (arguably) underrated performance in her codependent relationship with Ruben, recovering from mental health issues and alternating roles with him as the others carer. There’s rawness to how she plays Lou; determined to save Ruben yet guilty of surviving and thriving without him. Raci, a longtime alum of Deaf West Theatre, brings authenticity as a CODA (child of d/Deaf adults), imbuing his real life experiences within the community into a performance of staggering natural empathy and heart; as understanding of Ruben’s needs as he is protective of everyone else under his care. Finally, Ahmed perfects the balancing act the entire film is built upon; playing Ruben’s experience as one that is so representative and respectful to that of a deaf person, while also universalising it beyond its specifics. With Ahmed’s incredible performance, there’s learned authenticity, identity, and also an outstretched hand of empathy, one to be taken by anyone who has experienced any sudden loss that they struggled to accept.
And that, I feel, is the greatest strength to the film as a whole. For a film about personal sacrifice on the altar of acceptance, the cast and crew haven‘t sacrificed anything to be accepted by audiences and critics. Marder is unafraid to tell a potentially niche story from the perspective of a deaf man in the knowledge that people will empathise; Sound of Metal is unafraid to be authentic and narrowly specific, as the emotional effect it has will always be universal.