Sound of Metal [Review]

Darius Marder made a name for himself nearly 8 years ago when he co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines alongside his friend and collaborator Derek Cianfrance. He’s typically worked as an editor prior to his writing on Beyond the Pines and Sound of Metal. As many films do, the road to the premiere has been a long one. Eight years ago, around the time after Cianfrance released The Place Beyond the Pines, Darius began coming up with the story of Sound of Metal which slowly transitioned from a documentary about a real couple in a metal band. Obviously, the seed of this is evident in the finished product.

The film and story eventually evolved into something far more beautiful and wonderful once Darius’ brother Abraham joined the writing process. As a tribute to their grandmother Dorothy who lost their hearing due to antibiotics in her 60s, Sound of Metal follows Lou (Olivia Cooke) and Ruben (Riz Ahmed) who are a two-person metal band. One day, Ruben wakes up and has lost a significant amount of hearing. Since Ruben used to be an addict, he returns to smoking a cigarette and this scares Lou into calling Ruben’s sponsor – even though he can’t hear him – Ruben explains how he’s feeling, scared and stressed, all within reason. His sponsor Hector then tells Lou about a program that Joe (Paul Raci) runs that might help Ruben get accustomed to becoming deaf. And then we follow Ruben on that journey.

Sound of Metal gives us a very raw and personal story, and doesn’t hold back on the potential ugliness of reality. Whether that’s someone struggling with addiction, or anxiety, it’s all baked into the essence of the film. The fear and emotions that Ruben has as he realizes he’s losing his hearing is so eloquently portrayed that his vulgar outbreaks don’t make you afraid of him, but both sympathize and empathize with him. That’s a testament to the incredible direction from Darius Marder and the intensity in which Riz Ahmed chose to commit and give all of himself for the roles. This includes a device that Riz would would wear that would emit white noise so that he would he would be hearing roughly what Ruben would be hearing at the time. At some points, the noise and device would be so strong, that he wasn’t able to hear his own voice.  

The film was shot in chronological order, and this feels very authentic to the film since as the film progresses and Ruben begins to learn how to sign (something Riz learned in the 4-month prep process of the film) and build relationships with the community, it feels earned and honest. Whether it’s the relationship with the other folk that live in the house with him, or the children at the school. 

Marder and his cinematographer Daniël Bouquet shot Sound of Metal on 35mm, which meant that the film had to be intimate and of the moment. Without the luxury of being able to have a take after take, the magic in the film was manifested within the community that Ruben eventually accepts and is brought into. It keeps the documentary sensibilities that allows the audience to feel both as a fly on the wall witnessing, while also every once in a while being forced to put Ruben’s shoes on our own feet, and finding out what it might be like to walk in them.

Watching Sound of Metal in a massive, loud theatre was the best experience possible. To hear the loud drums banging, or even to sit and be still with your own community – or by yourself, it’s something to cherish. I had the opportunity to watch the film unravel, wrap me up and move to places I didn’t see coming when I saw it at TIFF in 2019, but watching it two more times at home – once on the TV, and once on my laptop, it doesn’t take away from any of the aspects of the film. In fact, I loved it more and more with each viewing. 

The film defies expectations in its form and structure, after speaking to the very talented, yet humble Darius Marder, I realized similarities with The Place Beyond the Pines. Outside of the the look of Ruben is reminiscent of Ryan Gosling’s character Luke, but also the feel, the structure and the rawness of it. In my interview, Darius talks about his two leads Riz and Olivia by joking about the audacity of sincerity, in a realm of where our actors are hidden behind a digital barrier, Riz and Olivia stand out by being interested in not only the journey the film provides, but also a personal one moving forward after this experience.

Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke are both phenomenal actors that are constantly delivering on all fronts – and this includes their dedication to the roles they play. But what Darius accomplishes with them and the rest of their super talented cast is absolutely inspiring. As someone whose anxieties run amok in their own head and sometimes make so much unnecessary noise that can only be drowned out by the latest song of the week or a podcast, it’s rare to see when a film truly appreciates how beautiful and fulfilling silence can be. Expect Sound of Metal on my best of list, and high. I also am expecting to see it on others, as well as at the Oscars (in whatever form it lands on). I hope it beats Tenet in some of those sound categories.