By Angelo Muredda
Entering Riz Ahmed in the disability cosplay sweepstakes as a young drummer coping with hearing loss, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal originated as a lightly meta vehicle for husband-and-wife sludge-metal duo Jucifer to be directed by Derek Cianfrance, with whom Marder co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). That the final result is more surprising than the rote uplift narrative suggested by its edifying logline is a testament to both Ahmed’s cagey intensity and the fact that Marder, making his fiction-feature debut here, proves to have sharper instincts as a storyteller than his more schematic Pines partner (who retains a story credit on the film). However, that the film is ultimately as vulnerable to thematic shortcuts and unsatisfying pronouncements as any other disability melodrama—a genre that requires lessons be learned, if not by the disabled protagonists then by the non-disabled viewers who are presumably hoping to glean something inspiring from the protagonists’ pain and suffering—is a testament to how thoroughly this ground has been trod.
Ahmed’s Ruben is a heavy metal drummer in a professional and romantic relationship with singer-songwriter Lou (Olivia Cooke), with whom he crisscrosses the country in an RV on a ceaseless roundelay of gigging. A bleached-blond wellness guru who wakes up early, makes green protein shakes, and keeps the pair’s timing in every sense (whether drumming or driving the RV to the next venue), Ruben is the picture of self-control, as befits a recovering addict. Consulting a doctor after his ears suddenly started ringing at the merch tent while he was preparing for his next show, Ruben is hit with the sobering news that his hearing loss is not a momentary ailment, but the start of a new kind of life: as the doctor tells him, it is not a question of how to recover the 70% of his hearing that he has lost, but rather of preserving what he has left. Itching for cigarettes and other stopgaps—primarily a prohibitively expensive cochlear implant—Ruben is convinced by Lou, who fears that he may relapse, to take up temporary residence at a remote shelter for deaf addicts run by enigmatic army veteran Joe (Paul Raci). Ruben’s job there, as one fellow resident quips via a whiteboard, is to learn how to be deaf.
Evincing none of the inflated scale, bathos, and non-linear narrative trappings of Marder and Cianfrance’s previous collaboration, Sound of Metal starts in a relatively effective minor key, its first act playing out as a phenomenological study of an artist who thrives on routine re-learning how to be himself when those habits are taken away. While Marder’s establishment of Ruben’s baseline soundscape in the opening moments is a little heavy-handed—with everything from the whirring of the blender, to the quiet hum of the RV’s engine, to the percussive rhythm of Ruben’s drumsticks as he compulsively taps them against any number of surfaces invested with ominous portent by the pointed attention paid them—the sudden absence of those sounds leaves the viewer, like Ruben, adrift. When Ruben’s hearing starts to rapidly decline, Marder conveys his new experience of the world through conspicuous sound design: as the audio drops to a low warble, the indecipherable din that results sounds a bit like trying to follow a conversation being held on land while one’s head is underwater.
While initially effective, this conceit also comes dangerously close to framing the film as a hearing-loss simulator for hearing audiences, which at times scans less as a strict adherence to the protagonist’s perspective than as a tasteless form of body tourism, a less outré cousin to the freak show. It also doesn’t help that the filmmakers lack the conviction to make their soundscape purely experiential: for instance, in a stressful scene where Ruben tries to set up a doctor’s appointment through a pharmacist, Marder pulls us out of Ruben’s soundworld to let us hear what the other man is saying, even though Ruben cannot.
Nevertheless, as inconsistent and inherently dubious as this aural gambit may be, it achieves a kind of blunt-force effectiveness in tandem with the earnest, wild-eyed performance by Ahmed, who clocks Ruben as a creature of sensory saturation who needs to adapt to his impairment if he’s going to survive his short-term cravings, let alone find his way back to Lou and to his music. Marder is smart to bounce the nervous, can-do energy of Ruben—a hopelessly brittle person who has had to train himself to embrace all of his challenges through the lens of positive thinking—off the implacable wall of Raci’s Joe, who radiates low-level menace despite being essentially benevolent. Even though Raci’s casting was clearly motivated by his status as a hearing son of deaf parents—making him a kind of portal into an authentic Deaf culture to which neither Marder nor Ahmed have access—he has a magnetic, borderline cultic presence regardless: there’s a kinetic charge to his first scene with Ahmed, as Joe speaks deliberately into his dictation software to lay out the shelter’s house rules while Ruben’s eyes dart back and forth between him and the screen that captions what he’s saying. While Joe’s rehab facility is ultimately more of a narrative crutch than a fully realized place—it serves largely as a gateway to a nondescript school for deaf children, which appears mostly in montages that underscore Ruben’s quick progress in ASL and social integration—there is some real substance to the men’s clash of styles and visions for a deaf future: Ruben is fixated on medical intervention and perpetual motion, while Joe is committed to the virtues of tranquility, where Deafness is a culture one can immerse oneself in rather than a deficit to be compensated for.
Yet even as Sound of Metal avoids some of the narrative dead ends of disability dramas past by entertaining Joe’s hardline perspective and denying Ruben’s hopes for a deus ex machina, its conclusion isn’t any less unsatisfying for going in a slightly different direction than might have been expected. Cashing in his RV and gear to fund the cochlear implant procedure (which, coincidentally, costs almost exactly what he has to his name), Ruben discovers that the implants aren’t a substitute for hearing so much as another stopgap: an external microphone embedded in the ear. As with his earlier immersion in Ruben’s internal soundscape, Marder now channels the tinny radio buzz of the implants, and, once again, cheats to let the viewer appreciate just what Ruben is missing: when Ruben takes in the newly well-groomed Lou’s duet with her rakish French crooner father (Mathieu Amalric), Marder renders it first in stereo, and then in the heavily distorted mono that Ruben hears.
There’s some degree of novelty to the film’s suggestion that, if Ruben is going to make something of himself outside of his rehab, it won’t be through the quick fix of surgery. Yet the solution it does offer—that Ruben simply learn to sit in the silence and sharpen his powers of observation (a piece of useless advice that previously inspired him to pound a donut into dust in Joe’s study)—isn’t much more convincing or plausible as a conclusion than if he had been miraculously cured. By amplifying Joe’s voice in Ruben’s head precisely when it would be most interesting to see him work to reconcile his penchant for noise with the necessity to appreciate stillness, Marder ultimately settles for the sound of bromides.