In Darius Marder’s new film Sound of Metal, actor Riz Ahmed begins and ends in two distinct places of stillness. The film opens on him sitting behind his drum set as if in a black void-shirtless, buff and tattooed…. his entire being pulsating with anticipation like a caged animal waiting to strike. And then he does, the stillness broken as he drives a frenzied beat to accompany singer/guitarist and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cook) as she drones the lyrics to their heavy metal/noise sound. It’s probably the happiest he’ll be in the film as his drum beat crescendos and wavers out as the crowd applauds.
The second act of stillness later in the film is just as pure and satisfying, albeit in a much more complex re-framing of the narrative after a lot has happened. Without spoiling anything, it’s a near perfect attitude that captures a moment both heartbreaking and uplifting in a film whose journey is well earned, well acted and dutifully observed.
As Rubin, Ahmed gives a defining performance. It’s not long after that bit of underground-rock stardom opening we see that he and Lou are much more than band mates. In sharp contrast to their loud and metallic music, they live a peaceful (almost boring) life together in an Air stream trailer, traveling the Midwest and performing. They have a tour lined up, have produced several albums, and genuinely enjoy their partnership.
It’s only when they’re getting ready for one of their shows that Rubin experiences a ringing in his ears followed by a muffled loss of sound. He shakes it off, but it happens again during the show and his drum beat becomes erratic and unfocused. It continues to worsen, leaving him suddenly deaf and forced to re-evaluate the purpose of his life. In a brave choice of sound editing, director Marder and editor Mikkel Nielsen crawl inside Rubin’s head, allowing us to experience the curtains of sounds that ebb and flow, until we’re left with nothing, just as distressed as Rubin.
But the loss of hearing is only the jumping off point for Sound of Metal. It’s a a very specific film with strong characterizations and deep attention paid to every single role. Rubin ends up at a disability camp for deaf persons, run by ex-Vietnam veteran Joe (Paul Raci whose biography is just as complex as his role). The real focus of Marder’s film plays out here as Rubin finds his niche in this group of people and the friction that comes with his driving goal to have surgical cochlear implants and reunite with Lou.
Also written by Marder (who also co-wrote Derek Cinafrance’s powerful The Place Beyond the Pines), Sound of Metal is far less sweeping than that film, but just as attuned to the passage of time and how we grow and evolve with unforeseen circumstances. Though the film rests mostly on Ahmed’s shoulders, Sound of Metal populates itself with vivid characters whose presence matches his ferocious honesty. The aforementioned Raci is amazing, as is Cook portraying Lou. Not saddled with the archetype of long-suffering girlfriend, she embodies a character who undergoes her own personal revolution. Even small, one-scene characters like that of Mathieu Almaric as Lou’s father vibrate with aching sincerity. The conversation he has with Ahmed towards the end of the film says nothing and everything about a protective father who understands these two young people need to discover some truths for themselves.
Outside of its stellar casting, Marder’s sound design and choice of images is first-rate. We never think of the passionate sounds that come from a room of people using sign language. In one scene, the group are having dinner, signing and joking with one another. One moment we’re inside Rubin’s head as the sign language flies and then an abrupt cut to the whole group reveals a loud cacophony of hands hitting the table and gasps of recognition as the room communicates. Marder continually re-adjusts our focus from interior to exterior with sharp grace.
Yes, I’m gushing about Sound of Metal. It’s that good. Bookended by two moments of stillness, what makes it an incredibly special film is the chaos of learning to communicate anew in-between those moments. The journey may have been heartbreaking and confusing and maddening, but it’s a film that understands the wisdom that comes from such an experience.
Sound of Metal opens in limited theatrical release on Friday November 20th. It will begin streaming on VOD platforms on December 1st.