Sound design remains a dismally overlooked/unfairly ignored aspect of audio/visual storytelling. Partly, one assumes, due to the ableist presumption that experiencing the sensation we call hearing is simply a part of day to day life. In reality, there are close to 500 million people whose ears cannot process and interpret the frequencies so many of us take for granted. Television shows such as “Switched at Birth,” have attempted a deep dive into the subject matter, director Darius Marder‘s “Sound of Metal,” brutally and beautifully captures the sobering downward spiral of an indie rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) who suddenly experiences the loss of his hearing, simultaneously conveying the numbingly results oriented struggles of a deeply pained addict in express denial that he’s in desperate need of help getting his now-distorted life back together.
An emotional cacophony of authentically designed cinematic artistry, Marder’s movie originally started as a hybrid-documentary project, called “Metalhead,” fronted by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”) a still unreleased film following active members of the deaf community, such as Paul Raci, lead singer for the ASL Rock group called Hands of Doom; the band performs in American Sign Language. The hybrid project eventually evolved into a fully fledged narrative film, with Cianfrance retaining a “story by” credit in Marder’s completed work, and many of the real life people ending up as characters in the finished product, including Raci.
Opening in a piss-on-the-floor punk club – a venue much like L.A.’s The Smell, before it closed its doors – Ahmed’s character, Ruben, pounds on his kit in a frenzy, his partner and singer, Lou (an excellent Olivia Cooke) shrieks near indiscernible lyrics with a purposefully lo-fi aesthetic. There are subtitles such as “loud booming bass,” and soon there will be far more. Checking out the merch table (support local bands!) of his tour-mates one night, Ruben’s ears start ringing. Storming out into the club’s back alley, mid-set, Lou chases after him, and Ruben tells her the truth: he can’t hear anything. He doesn’t want to cancel the tour, but she effectively insists, partly even more concerned that this might mean Ruben will start using again. Lou looks for a treatment center for the deaf while Ruben learns it will cost thousands of dollars for hearing aids.
Finding a place that specializes in Ruben’s circumstances, Ruben and Lou meet Joe (Raci), the head of the recovery program who can tell from personal experience that he’s looking at an addict. In their first meeting (an outstandingly well-directed sequence) Joe points to the center of his forehead, telling Ruben that they are looking “for a solution to this…” – meaning his negative thought process – he then points to his ears, “not to this.” The musician learns that this community does not see themselves as being disabled, as lacking something most others have, but rather, they simply experience life differently, learning to appreciate things like stillness, rather than external validation. Ruben would like Lou to stay and support him, but Joe insists that he must go through his journey alone if he really wants to heal, assigning the drummer the seemingly impossible task of sitting in a room surrounded by blank walls, instructing him to write whatever he feels on a blank page rather than give into his cognitive dissonance.
Things appear to be going well, at points, but when abandoned to a drowning sea of his own thoughts, Ruben becomes obsessed with earning enough money to buy those expensive hearing aids – his motivation further heightened, when he breaks the rules of Joe’s program to access the internet, seeing videos of his partner and band-mate performing by herself on the floor, forced to use a drum machine to make ends meet. Joe continues to remind Ruben that if he sees himself as less than complete without the ability to hear, then he’s missing out on what makes life so singular, so special. But Ruben’s addictive tendencies continue rising to the surface.
Already impressing audiences with his roles in “Nightcrawler,” and “The Night Of,” Riz Ahmed simply gives one of the most raw and tragic performances of the year. If he doesn’t end up in Best Actor contention, well… then Hollywood hasn’t come nearly as far as “Parasite” back-patting would have us believe. Like Cianfrance, Marder clearly has a way with actors, mainly shooting with a tightly enclosed style, using the power of space and performance to convey the sensory and tumultuous state of its protagonist via unhealed compositions that use focus as much more than a tool. All the accolades Ahmed may amass are 1000% deserved, but Raci’s often heart-stabbing turn should be getting near the same level of praise. His empathetic presence embodies the very definition of tough love – the history of his own mirror troubles visible behind the eyes as he lays all of Ruben’s rationalizing self-assessments on the table, aiming to truly hash these issues out.
On top of “Sound of Metal’s” achievement as a character piece, many of the scenes provide a wholly authentic window into how deaf people live their lives, removed from the expectations of privileged society. The dinner table sequences, in particular, are powerfully compassionate without feeling like they’re pandering. People pound on the table and sign to those sitting opposite of themselves. The tremendous feat of the sound editor Nicolas Becker, also the co-composer of the film, cannot be overstated – a bit where Ruben teaches a class how to drum on buckets being a standout. Most importantly, the contrast of the community’s positive attitude versus Ruben’s state of denial is deftly examined via the differences in their goals and behavior. As we watch an addict educate himself in signing, we also see him struggling to realize that most of his life choices have been dependent on the end result: Addict 101 behavior – the refusal to accept your existence as it is without relying on an exterior catharsis the interior believes was unfairly extracted. In reality, the simple ability to have such feelings should serve as a stinging reminder that hearing, like living, is a sensation far too many of us are prone to take for granted.