Sound design is perhaps an under-celebrated tool in the filmmaker's arsenal. After all, it can be a vital component in building a world, establishing a character’s headspace or simply conjuring up atmosphere, but it’s rarely in the spotlight. Sound Of Metal proves just how vital and transformative it can be.
The feature directorial debut from Darius Marder (an established doc-maker), Sound Of Metal is sure to be up for every sound-design award going, but it deserves more than just that. Marder also wrote the screenplay, which emerged from the remnants of a never-realised fact/fiction blend by Marder’s regular collaborator Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines).
It’s about a drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), whose life is upended when he suddenly develops drastic hearing loss. Ruben’s on the road with bandmate and partner Lou (Ready Player One’s Olivia Cooke) when the condition takes such a severe turn that he has no choice but to seek medical help. He winds up checking in to a home for deaf addicts that’s run by Joe (Paul Raci), a former veteran who helps his charges get to grips with their new way of living.
On a visceral level, the immersive sound design adds to an uncannily engaging film experience. Entirely captioned, Sound Of Metal frequently makes you feel Ruben’s disorientation and isolation. And while it’s tackling a serious subject, and shining a rare cinematic light on the deaf community, it never patronises or lectures its subject or audience, and there’s something remarkably intimate about the way Ruben’s relationships develop as he begins to grasp sign language. It’s as much a film about addiction and acceptance as it is about a condition.
Ahmed is electric in one of the roles of his career so far. With bleach-blond hair and a lithe torso scrawled in tattoos, he inhabits the role like a second skin. It’s an affecting performance that resonates acutely in the feels, without resorting to grandstanding or softening any of the character’s coarser edges. Cooke is also terrific in a smaller role, but it’s Raci who’s the MVP of the supporting players. In real life, Raci was a child of deaf adults (and is also in an ASL metal band). Here he’s on authoritative and empathetic form, and avoids on-screen mentors clichés with seeming ease.
Infusing a vérité tone with poetry, Marder is a talent to watch. As Sound Of Metal builds to its somewhat surprising third act, the cumulative effect is powerful and profound. And despite its tight focus and subtle character work, it absolutely rewards being seen on the big screen, where that experiential sound design can deliver its fullest effect. A small film that hits big, Sound Of Metal is a gem you’ll want to bang the drum for.