A Musician's Ultimate Nightmare in Sound of Metal
In a silent way: Darius Marder on his new film about a drummer going deaf
Darius Marder concedes that it's a red herring, the way Sound of Metal feels like a horror movie at its onset – like there's something terrifying lying in wait. "There is a monster that's lurking," the film's director and co-writer admitted. "But the monster's actually inside."
Sound of Metal (which bursts into its Texas debut as part of Sound Unseen) tracks Ruben, the drummer in a motorhome-dwelling art-sludge duo called Blackgammon, fronted by his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). In the middle of a tour his hearing suddenly degenerates – going stone-deaf within days – and he's thrust into a desperate existential crisis wherein he must deal with his new reality and confront his addiction, anger, and co-dependency while fighting to not let life pass him by.
For myself, a lifelong musician in favor of loud genres who's often pompously but honestly declared that he'd rather be blind than deaf, Sound of Metal is the realest kind of horror. The lost look in the eyes of Ruben (played by Riz Ahmed) when he's first processing his hearing loss shook me, thinking about being stripped of the sense so closely related to my very identity. The film's audio – which Marder notes took 23 weeks to mix with French specialist Nicolas Becker – emulates tinnitus, muffling, and the sound of cochlear implants with such bold realism that I had to press pause three times, taking deep breaths and gathering myself.
"A physical reaction – that's the intention," Marder exclaimed when I explained to him how the movie hit me. "That may be a somewhat unusual experience in a film, but the whole film is set up to be physical.
"Our intention was to draw attention to sound itself," he elaborated. "The way it cuts in and out is constantly making you feel what it is to hear – not just to lose your hearing."
Further contributing to the engrossing nature of Sound of Metal is the film's commitment to a first-person perspective. Not for a single scene does it cut away from Ruben's predicament – even when it'd be a welcome relief. It's not an easy way to sustain a story, but it makes it that much more potent.
The 130-minute feature germinated out of an aborted hybrid documentary about the real-life loudest band on the planet, a husband-and-wife tandem called Jucifer who punished this writer's ears at a small club in the mid-2000s. Marder had done some editing work on the project, titled Metalheads, for his friend, Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, who ultimately scrapped it. "When it became clear that Derek was never going to finish that idea, I adopted it," said Marder, who expanded the doc's partial angle of hearing loss into a narrative.
In the four years he spent casting Sound of Metal, Marder maintained intimidating ground rules for the lead role: They'd have to pick up drums and film the scenes during an actual live performance in addition to learning American Sign Language. Ahmed, who plays Ruben with gripping vulnerability, also wore hearing implants that emitted white noise to be deprived of the the comfort of hearing his own voice in his head. Marder remembered the first time he put them in: "His eyes filled with tears because he understood how lost and out of control it felt.
"It's a brave performance in the truest sense of the word – it scared him and he did it anyway," the filmmaker says of Ahmed. "I asked him to approach the process from a physical place, not cerebral. As we all know, Riz is incredibly sophisticated and will analyze everything, but I didn't want him dwelling, I wanted him to build this character from the ground up, and he did, trusting the journey."
Sound of Metal will be available to stream as part of Sound Unseen Wed., Nov. 11, 7pm through Fri., Nov. 13, 11:59pm.