Director: Darius Marder
Writers: Darius Marder (story & screenplay by), Abraham Marder (screenplay by), Derek Cianfrance (story by)
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Runtime: 120 mins
MPAA Rating: R
The stark contrast between the first and last scenes in Darius Marder’s feature-length directorial debut The Sound of Metal has stayed with me long after my initial viewing. When metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) has his life turned upside down when his hearing suddenly and rapidly deteriorates, he finds himself scared, frustrated, denying reality, and situated to return to a past of drug addiction. At the behest of his girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), Ruben agrees to temporarily halt his musical career with Lou and begrudgingly enters an enclosed community for deaf recovering addicts run by Joe (Paul Raci), a former alcoholic and Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing during the war. Despite being separated from Lou, Ruben remains hopeful as he has his heart set on eventually procuring expensive cochlear implants so that he can return to his former life.
As Ruben adapts to his new sensory circumstances, you learn how tenuously held together his previous life was. Routine, the pursuit of passion, and the good fortune of having a caring girlfriend are what prevented him from reverting to a self-destructive state. Disrupted from his routine, kept from his passion, and separated from his significant other, Ruben reaches the peak of his emotional pain and frustration. At this same time, Joe encourages Ruben to isolate himself and learn to become comfortable with silence. The situation forces Ruben to introspect while keeping him from his vices. At its core, this story is about life relentlessly pushing Ruben to become honest with himself.
Riz Ahmed masterfully portrays the burdened Ruben as his initial tough-guy facade and resistance to external help soften. The nuances to his performance appropriately change as Ruben matures and better accepts his circumstances; he becomes a more personable and contemplative man appreciative of others’ assistance and more attuned to the simple joys of life. Ahmed is entirely convincing as a former heroin addict struggling to stay afloat with his anxious mannerisms and blank expressions. I particularly enjoyed his portrayal of how someone formerly able to hear would act when suddenly unable to pick up on auditory cues. The purposeful sound design often drops you into Ruben’s headspace to perceive audio the way he does. When his hearing is initially fully functioning, you experience the earsplittingly loud, rapid-fire drum patterns in his band’s music followed by a muffled distortion of that experience as the rapid deterioration takes over. When he later opts for technological hearing assistance, you experience the omnipresent white noise incessantly hissing in his ear as the poorly electronically reproduced sounds deprive the speaker opposite him of all humanity. Ultimately, you get to experience complete and total silence.
As the story unfolds, you come to understand that Ruben preferred distracting himself from his problems in his former life rather than dealing with the root cause. The routine and distraction of his musical pursuits were merely stopgaps from him returning to his addictions. Ruben’s insistence on procuring cochlear implants to allow him to return to that previous life demonstrates his stubborn refusal to let go and his continued denial of reality. Though Joe tries to convince him that deafness is not a disease to be cured, Ruben has to learn the hard way that his former lifestyle is not going to bring lasting happiness and peace. Such joys come through forming meaningful connections with other people who care for your well-being and help you to appreciate life. What actually prevented him from descending into self-harm was the genuinely caring Lou. She encouraged him to be a better version of himself though she could only do so much due to her own issues. As a result, you are deeply invested in finding out if their relationship can be rekindled after his adaptation and their time apart.
Every positive aspect of this film flows from Marder’s intimate direction and emotionally authentic script. I sympathized with Ruben from the film’s outset as reverting to comfort, familiarity, and vices is easy while undergoing radical change is painfully difficult. Transforming painful loss into a character enhancing experience requires a healthy outlook on life and positive influences surrounding you. Few films communicate such wisdom adeptly. Opening with chaotic noise and concluding with peaceful silence, Ruben’s journey is neatly summarized by just the first and final scenes. However, what comes between these two scenes is a visceral and profound character progression that I suggest all experience.
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