Sound of Metal
2020, NR, 130 min. Directed by Darius Marder. Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 20, 2020
If you know a musician, you've probably joked with them more than once about a whistling in your ears, or made "what? WHAT?" responses. But that's gallows humor, to ward off the ultimate loss, as close to living in limbo as imaginable.
In unconventional rock drama Sound of Metal, Ruben (Ahmed) and Lou (Cooke) make up Blackgammon - one of those kind of noise duos that you catch in some basement club on a seven-band lineup, the kind where you're glad that not every act is like that because you don't think your ears could handle it. But imagine being in that band, night after night, blaring as loud as you can, revving off that volume, and then all you get is silence. That's what happens to Ruben, whose hearing is just giving out. This isn't mild tinnitus. The doctor he sees explains that this is sudden, catastrophic, inexplicable, and he will probably lose the last shreds of his interaction with the world of sound in days, maybe weeks.
But this isn't the age-old story of a musician going on one last self-destructive bender before his muse collapses. When Lou checks him into a rehab attached to a school for the deaf, terrified he'll turn back to his old heroin crutch, he doesn't rebel in cardboard jukebox hero fashion. He knows it's over, even if the vague promise of expensive restorative surgery (where's a gutter-punk drummer going to get $80,000?) is a fairy tale that he's trying hard to believe.
Documentary and music video camera genius Daniël Bouquet combines his two interests to give the film a naturalistic, almost fly-on-the-wall feel, but everything is really in service of the sound design. Director Darius Marder (who wrote the script with his brother, composer Abraham Marder, from a story by Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance) doesn't loudQUIETloud the sound, but plays with muffling and that distinctive tinnitus whistling in such a way that, when the audience can hear simple noises like woodland chatter, or feet on gravel, we're painfully aware that Ruben can't. In a film that centers on profound loss, the audience is absolutely living with Ruben in what's left of his old world – and what it is becoming.
If anything competes with the sound design, it's Ahmed's performance of a man desperately avoiding self-destruction. He's staring at losing the one part of his life that's been a constant, and Ahmed catches his sense of desperation. His journey is one of accepting loss, and losing more to regain what you had, and it's painful and sobering.
Most importantly, Marder gives the audience one of the most illuminating glimpses into deaf culture to date. Working with actors who are deaf is only part of it: The rest is in details and understanding. If the arguments against cochlear implants have baffled you, then those presented by members of the community with Sound of Metal may not convince you but they will at least let you understand why some people resist them. The fact that Ruben blunders through those discussions doesn't make him a bad person but shows how much growing he has to do.
A version of this review ran as part of our AFI Festival coverage.