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A film about the sudden onset of deafness that is too attentive to specifics of character and setting to ever feel like a rote disability drama, Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal stars Riz Ahmed as a man whose life, up to now, has revolved around music. Working through the stages of grief, Ahmed’s drummer gets stuck at Bargaining: Is there a way to undo the damage done to his ears, and return to life as he knows it? The question, a much more complicated one than he wants to believe, nudges Sound to pick sides in a controversy unfamiliar to most moviegoers. But even when the cultural politics are explicit, Ahmed’s performance and a sure-footed script by Marder and his brother Abraham ensure that this remains one man’s story — and one that should be warmly welcomed at art houses.
Ruben is the drummer of a loud and abrasive duo with girlfriend Louise (Olivia Cooke), a singer. (They’re not really a metal group — more like an artsy-aggro descendant of No Wave — but the film’s title will make a different kind of sense later on.) The two live happily as musical nomads, touring in a gear-stuffed silver RV and hawking merch at shows. Our first glimpse of them in performance is mixed so loudly, and the sound design features so many assaultive moments throughout, that one wonders if Marder wants us to share in the hearing damage Ruben is about to endure.
(The band is modeled on a real one called Jucifer, whose members acted in an unreleased film, Metalhead, by Derek Cianfrance. Cianfrance executive produces and has a story co-credit here; without mentioning it by name, Marder says this film grew out of that still-unreleased “exploratory, hybrid documentary.”)
The pair are waiting to soundcheck at a club when Ruben has an out-of-the-blue ear pop, as you would while diving or descending on a flight, and is left barely hearing what’s around him. Accomplished sound designer Nicolas Becker shows us what he hears: voices and noises muffled as if heard underwater, getting less and less distinct as Ruben realizes this is not a momentary phenomenon. Panicked, he finds an audiologist the next day, and is told to expect even more deterioration. The hearing he’s lost won’t return, though an expensive cochlear implant is an option down the road. He must “eliminate all exposure to loud noise”; so of course, still in denial, Ruben drums one more gig before Louise realizes what’s happening and ends the tour.
Lou’s anxious protectiveness isn’t only about this trauma. The two got together four years ago, just as Ruben entered recovery from addiction (“mainly heroin”). She understandably fears a relapse, and, through Ruben’s sponsor, finds a 13-step group operating at a remote community for the deaf. There, the group’s leader Joe (Paul Raci) convinces her that Ruben’s best road to sanity — he’s clearly on the edge at the moment — lies in her dropping him off here indefinitely and accepting that he’ll have no contact with the outside world for a while.
Raci’s deeply credible performance is grounded in his life experience: The son of a deaf parent, he became involved enough in American Sign Language to make deaf-oriented theater a part of his acting career; he also fronts a Black Sabbath tribute band that performs in ASL. It’s thanks to his immediately apparent expertise that we might accept the script’s failure to really explain some of the cultural issues at play. A viewer with no hearing-impaired acquaintances is unlikely to understand Joe’s group’s approach unless he or she has, for instance, seen Josh Aronson’s doc Sound and Fury, which explains the belief that the deaf have their own distinct culture that should be embraced; those who seek surgical remedies are seen by some as traitors to the community.
Having fully realized the cauldron of emotional responses his character is barreling through, Ahmed reveals Ruben’s gentler nature as the film unfolds in the woods. Resistant at first, he quickly picks up enough sign language to take part in dinner-table conversations. Forced to go back to school, he studies with elementary-age deaf kids in a class taught by Diane (Lauren Ridloff, of The Walking Dead and Broadway’s Children of a Lesser God). The two seem potentially headed toward a flirtation, but Marder smartly chooses not to clutter this journey up much with the perils of long-distance romantic drama. Though Ruben does fear that Lou will soon, in both life and music, be forced to move on without him.
That, in part, informs his choice to sell everything he has and get cochlear implants. Surely, almost all viewers with full use of their ears will sympathize with the choice; sensitively, Marder explores the possibility that we are wrong. Without romanticizing deafness, Sound of Metal makes a case for acceptance and for embracing the inevitability of unpredictable change. At moments, it almost seems to envy those who have been given relief from some of the many abrasive voices that clutter our world.
Production companies: Caviar, Flat 7 Productions
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Director: Darius Marder
Screenwriters: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
Producers: Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche, Kathy Benz, Bill Benz
Executive producers: Riz Ahmed, Daniel Sbrega, Derek Cianfrance
Director of photography: Daniel Bouquet
Production designer: Jeremy Woodward
Costume designer: Megan Stark Evans
Editor: Mikkel E. G. Neilsen
Composers: Abraham Marder, Nicolas Becker
Casting director: Susan Shopmaker
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Sales: CAA, Protagonist
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