Director: Darius Marder
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci
Isolation is a persistent concern in Darious Marder’s seismic awards hopeful, Sound of Metal – one of the more interesting contenders in this year’s crop, as its word-of-mouth groundswell trumps the more calculated prestige trappings of most common contenders. It’s the underdog in the mix.
The film stars Riz Ahmed as Ruben, one half of a touring noise-rock duo with singer and guitarist Lou (Olivia Cooke). Ruben is her drummer and partner of four years – coincidentally the amount of time Ruben has remained clean from a drug addiction typified by heroin use. Ruben starts rapidly losing his hearing not long after we meet him. Lou fears for his ability to cope with his deteriorating situation. The pair’s emotions are like their music; raw and volatile.
Feeling as though he’s been flung onto an alien planet and with considerable reservations, Ruben joins a deaf community overseen by Joe (Paul Raci), who lost his own hearing in combat. Funded by the church, the community appears isolated in some generic rural locale. Histories of addiction are prevalent among its members. It is here that Marder’s film settles in and explores Ruben’s sense of separation from the world, and a greater sense of societal division also.
The community itself feels exiled from the world, as those with disabilities or addictions can feel excluded from more privileged circles. Sound of Metal does not conflate deafness and addiction, but it does see the ways they are perceived as limitations when set against the rhythms of the ably ‘functional’ world. Joe’s community is tight-knit, but in a way that feels ring-fenced from the outside world through unspoken – or unheard – stigmatism. They are a colony who, as a rule, do not mix with the rest of society.
Ruben is isolated within this community. Newly deaf, he cannot sign and has to join a class in which he is the only adult. Prone to aggressive outbursts of frustration, Ruben isn’t inclined to ingratiate himself at first and – at the centre of the film’s isolationist onion (not a phrase I expected to use) – Joe has him sit alone in a featureless room with only a pad and paper; an exercise in stillness that seems to help focus Ruben. In montage we begin to witness assimilation.
In a manner similar to (but not quite as extreme as) Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s harrowing feature The Tribe, Marder doesn’t help out those not savvy in sign language. There are no subtitles offered, urging us to further empathise with Ruben’s sense of dislocation and otherness.
Addiction rears its head in other, unexpected ways. Joe and the community don’t consider deafness a disability, and so Ruben’s dogged attempts to regain his hearing and reclaim his former life (and love) register as a refusal of change and even a betrayal of trust. Sound of Metal isn’t so blunt as to chart a relapse into old habits (thankfully), but it frames Ruben’s attempts to contact Lou and the remnants of his past life almost like attempts to score. It’s an interesting comment on the ways that we codify the past. The film’s deliberately stilted third act underscores this incredibly human trait and finds our hero caught at a crossroads.
The film’s sound design is being rightfully championed. It is another tool of empathy and understanding. Ruben’s initial experiences have a submerged quality, recalling the disorientation and imbalance one feels with a bad head-cold, or the tinnitus experienced after a particularly raucous gig. Those of us fortunate enough to have our hearing in tact are given points of reference for his granular descent into silence. Later, the inventive approach to sound allows us to experience disorientation of quite a different kind. An effect which, coupled with Ahmed’s performance, is quietly devastating.
Ahmed’s journey since his breakout performance in Four Lions has been a pleasure to behold, if frustratingly slow-paced. From increasingly high-profile supporting roles in the likes of Nightcrawler and Rogue One to this past year, which as seen him graduate effortlessly to the status of a leading man; the position he’s been capable of this whole time. Sound of Metal feels like a culmination point for him. He’s reached a new peak and there are new horizons to behold. Where he goes from here promises to be well-worth the trip.