I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone talk about needing some silence, just to get away and embrace the quiet. It seems to be this idea of Nirvana to people who think they truly understand the value of the noise they take for granted. Sound of Metal, the feature debut for director Darius Marder wants to disillusion you to the notion that you understand the difference between sound and silence. Marder’s film is intent on bringing to the fore the lack of peace and the confusion losing something you hold so dear can have on not just one man but anyone. The fact that it does so by splitting its story in two, never really quite connecting them or letting each one breathe the way it should means that despite its harrowing imagery, unparalleled sound design and its intimate connection to the deaf community, it feels strangely hollow despite all the platitudes I could throw at it.
Marder’s feature, a expansion on a script he worked on with fellow filmmaker Derek Cianfrance and brother Abraham Marder follows heavy metal musician Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a recovering drug addict who after a series of performances begins to experience hearing loss which after visiting the doctor is told is not going to go away, only get worse. His girlfriend and the other half of their band Lou (Olivia Cooke) can’t help him so helps him find a sober house for the deaf community run by former Vietnam vet Joe (Paul Raci) where Ruben can learn to not just live with his new condition but connect with a new community that can actually understand, placing him in the middle of two worlds, unsure which one represents his future.
The decision by Marder to revolve his story around an addict and place it in a solitary location only adds to the restless feeling that comes with the complete silence Ruben all too frequently is placed within. Sound becomes just another addiction for Ruben, another obsession he can fixate on, never resting, just constantly moving seeking the next high. The audience however constantly sits waiting for the other shoe to drop, placed in the same jittery position as Ruben, unable to sit still with anticipation. It is smart plotting and manages to involve you in Ruben’s recovery without having to drill the notion of stillness and obsession in your mind but this only lasts as long as Ruben actually exists in this bubble and when he is stuck between both of his worlds, one full of sound, the other the promise of tranquility this tight narrative device breaks.
In fact, Ruben’s life with Lou, one consistently marred by emotional noise doesn’t feel as tightly plotted as the rest of Marder’s film and while Cooke is outstanding as the constantly on edge singer it never quite meshes with the ideas Marder is trying to float and feels flat because of it. Instead its Raci and Ahmed that truly take the reigns and ride with them. Raci in particular manages to hide conflict behind a man who needs to appear put together for the family he has created at the house he takes much pride in. Its the films best performance and rightly one of the five nominees for best supporting actor at this years Oscars. Although its hard to ignore any of the work done here, with Sound of Metal being a technical marvel from acting to how it looks and sounds. It just doesn’t connect audiences to Ruben and the realizations he comes to.
The impressive nature of how Marder uses sound to show how Ruben despite his desires can’t go back really sets Marder apart as a filmmaker, one willing to use every sense or lack thereof to tell a story and some of the audio choices and unwillingness to use subtitles in the early moments of Ruben’s hearing loss really allows you to sympathize with what is happening if never really connecting with it. The truth is, we will never really get what it feels like, how we might react but here we should know Ruben and while Ahmed is committed, Marder perfectly pictures the extreme struggle of coming to terms with a new normal, I never knew who outside of his deafness Ruben was as a person and what it was he actually wanted. While shining light on a community it loses sight of the person it uses as a door into this very different world.