There tends to be, each awards season, at least one film that you can see the passion emanating off of, and is obviously a project created out of sheer love. Sound of Metal is 2021’s, and after I first watched this in an early screening late last year, I am delighted to see it finally hit a UK audience as of yesterday with it’s release to Amazon Prime.
Directed and co-written by Darius Marder, Sound of Metal follows a heavy metal drummer named Ruben, who loses his hearing almost entirely overnight. Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci, the film has been nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture.
As a first time director, Marder is remarkably astute in his observations and impassioned in his execution in every department. No detail is sacrificed, making the experience of watching it realistic, and therefore not overtly sympathetic. Avoiding melodrama, Marder plunges you headfirst into Ruben’s deeply personal and emotional journey, as he struggles to accept and adapt to his new life.
The screenplay is stunning, and is co-written by Darius Marder alongside his brother, Abraham, with additional story writing by Derek Cianfrance. The Marder brothers’ Grandmother, Dorothy, (whom the film is dedicated to) lost her hearing suddenly after an illness.
The script is devoid of cliché, instead consisting of sensitivity and precise character indicators. Marder says the process of writing Sound of Metal was a deeply personal experience: “It had a lot to do with this idea of letting go. It was extraordinarily difficult for me… I think it was because I was ushering it into my own life”. The authenticity of emotion is more than apparent, in a much more nuanced way than is traditional in cinema.
Riz Ahmed gives a firecracker of performance. It is evident from the opening shot that he was getting an Oscar nomination – and all he’s doing is drumming. He is able to convey the very essence of a character so wholly that it can be captured in a still frame: he is truly on another level of performer. Ahmed takes a character’s situation, and never plays it in the obvious way. His ability to relay complex emotions in such a subtle, undetectable way is an actor’s dream: and he does it here through a blend of vocals, sign language and moments of total silence.
Though I believe this year to have the most stacked line up of male actors nominated and each of them is being rightly nominated and awarded, there is a large part of me that is gutted Ahmed is not doing a clean sweep this awards season.
Olivia Cooke has been vastly underrated in the response to this film. Her performance as Lou, Ruben’s girlfriend and lead singer of their band is heartbreaking.
Cooke told Collider that Marder emailed her “a 10,000 word essay on Lou’s upbringing, how and why she is who she is, where she’s coming from, and why so estranged from her father”, explaining that “having that knowledge, even though [the audience] never really learn any of that, colours the performance for me”. It’s evident, and beyond effective: Lou is a real, lived in character, and Cooke inhabits her instinctually. It was also Cooke who decided she should have bleached eyebrows in the role, and for that alone she deserves a medal of honour.
Together, Ahmed and Cooke make sparks fly, in the more delicate way established, settled relationships have. There’s a tangible chemistry to them that makes their relationship very, very real.
The final member of the principle cast is the ever brilliant Paul Raci as Joe, Ruben’s mentor. Raci is a prominent member of the deaf community, and is the frontman for the ASL band Hands of Death, so is a more than appropriate man for the job. Raci has such an understated, calming presence on the screen. He brings wisdom and tranquility to the role, in a beautiful, real way.
The narrative is simple, and linear, allowing the complexities of Ruben’s journey to be explored in a very human way. It was also shot in chronological order, which I think explains the truly organic feel, and aided performances between actors immensely, particularly between Riz Ahmed and Cooke as a couple.
It does draw a bias towards cochlear implants that can’t go unignored: it almost chastises them, even going as far as fabricating that they aren’t covered by medical insurance in the United States (which they are). There is, of course, no ‘correct’ way to be deaf. But I understand the message Marder is telling, in encouraging an acceptance for new deafness, instead of viewing it as a problem to be fixed.
The technical elements to this film, from the sound to Ruben’s tattoos, and everything in-between, are exceptional to the absolute minutiae. An immaculately real world is presented as a result. As you can imagine, it is the sound here, that is really impeccable.
It’s a soundscape created by Nicolas Becker and Jaime Baksht that can be broken down into three categories: sound as we traditionally hear it in a film; muted, muffled or impaired sound; and utter silence. The viewer experiences almost exactly what Ruben is in the sound alone, as well as what he’s missing out on. I’ve even read that Becker put a mic on Ahmed’s skull capture just the sound of his body movement – again, I cannot stress the attention to detail here more.
It’s an extraordinary, innovative way of using sound in film, that fascinates and transports. I hope very much so that it inspires filmmakers going forwards to really value the individual power of sound.
The cinematography is so simplistic, yet precise. Director of photography Daniël Bouquet uses the camera to track Ruben, and keeps the viewer almost directly in step with him for much of his journey. Visually, it’s always indicative of where our protagonist is at, and there’s many borderline extreme close ups that create anxiousness, with rarer still shots of the wide open world in brief moments of peace.
Obviously the film is specifically designed to be accessible for a deaf or hearing audience. Amazon Prime allows the viewer to turn off captions, however at film festivals the filmmakers intended for captions to be on the duration of the film, . It’s deliberately designed to bring hearing people into the world of those who are deaf.
After a second watch, I am even more so stunned by Sound of Metal. Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci are exceptional, and Riz Ahmed soars. I’m almost sure that he’s my preferred winner for Best Actor.
Darius Marder has crafted a meticulously detailed piece, with a real level of care that bleeds into every shot. It’s the exact kind of filmmaking I adore. To call a film “an experience” seems groan-worthy, but that’s exactly what Sound of Metal is.
It’s a tour-de-force, in every element.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime