How would you respond if your livelihood depended on your hearing? In Darius Marder’s film, “Sound of Metal,” metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) must adjust his life after he goes deaf. His response to his loss of hearing is where the movie sets itself apart from its competition.
Rather than embracing a leadership role at his rehabilitation center, Ruben does everything in his power to return to his old life while also carving a new identity. The setup has an Odyssean story structure, but Ruben’s realistic attitude toward losing his hearing gives “Sound of Metal” a level of credibility that is admirable.
Ruben’s biggest obstacle outside of his deafness is also his biggest supporter. Joe (Paul Raci) is a deaf Vietnam war veteran who pushes Ruben to embrace being deaf and to put more of a focus on staying sober. While Joe’s efforts are admirable, he fails to realize that Ruben has been off heroin for four years and wants to get his hearing back rather than solely focus on staying sober.
This dichotomy between Joe and Ruben highlights a debate on what it means to be deaf while also battling addiction. Raci and Ahmed have fantastic chemistry and work off of each other almost like a mentor and student relationship. It makes sense that both of their performances are nominated for Oscars.
Also worth mentioning is Olivia Cooke, who plays Ruben’s girlfriend and bandmate Lou. She is Ruben’s inspiration for going to rehab and getting his hearing back. Outside of a scene involving Ruben having a breakdown, the communication between him and Lou is a relationship filled with passion and ambition.
Production mixer Phillip Bladh’s use of distorted audio throughout demonstrates Ruben’s experience of being deaf while also exploring his frustrations. Without the distortion, the film would hold no emotional weight. Hearing through the ears of Ruben makes the world seem like a cacophony of randomly assorted noises that form a puzzle known as life.
That puzzle is never figured out throughout the film, which is perfect. Ruben’s future is uncertain, creating a desire to continue his story arc. Marder along with fellow writers Abraham Marder and Derek Cinafrance allow audiences to see and feel Ruben’s life through his eyes without getting too personal.
Outside of a conversation toward the end of the movie, very little is known about Ruben’s upbringing which further adds to the mystique of his character. This also adds to the narrative that “Sound of Metal” focuses on only what is deemed essential. Everything else is left up to interpretation.
Visually, the composition lacks color variance past the beginning of the movie. Style was clearly not Marder’s top priority as most shots feel basic. They’re focused and properly lined, Marder just decided not to make his film visually appealing outside of a few scenes.
“Sound of Metal” is an exploration of a man finding his way in life through his disability. Ahmed’s performance and the logistical sound mixing are the glue that keeps this film in place. Nominated for six Oscars, it is clear that Marder had a vision for his project. While it did not come from the visual end, he is able to tell a narrative that will have audience members engaged and curious about life as a deaf person.