Arts and Entertainment

A Silent Requiem In “Sound of Metal”

Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” captures a musician’s journey through deafness and the reverberations of change.

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The first thing you’ll hear in Darius Marder’s directorial debut “Sound of Metal” isn’t heavy-metal drumming, but the sound of an orchestra tuning as the theatrical logo of Amazon’s Prime Video Cinema unfolds on screen. Each sound is shaped with sterile minimalism—the strings are almost synth-like, a singular note prolonged as the camera pans to the theater front, its timbre crisp and defined.

Then comes silence. The curtain is drawn, and the first act has yet to start. When it does, we hear a ringing before the music. It’s a jarring noise, like a knife scraping against a bottle, reverberating constantly. Yet the music comes back quickly, and we’re swept to the intoxicating fervor of a rock show. Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is at the drums, hammering away as Lou (Olivia Cooke), the band’s frontwoman, howls into a microphone and thrashes her guitar. It would almost be a beautiful moment, complete with a strange sense of organized cacophony, but the ringing comes back, and the audio flips out. It’s muffled, in and out, and it’ll only get worse. We’re hearing what Ruben hears. The sound design sucks us into his mind: the feeling of drowning in deep water, suffocating panic, and the flickering haziness of everything. Unease creeps in almost instantaneously.

“Sound of Metal” follows a musician who goes deaf, but that’s not what the film is about. There’s a total submersion we find ourselves in that captures the fragility of daily existence. Films about life-changing events often turn to gimmicky melodramas, with cheap sentiment to tug at the heartstrings; “Sound of Metal” is anything but.

Ahmed plays it subtle, a quietness that comes with the fear and denial of loss. It’s mere minutes after we meet Ruben and Lou that he gets diagnosed, learns about surgical options, and starts racing to raise the money for his expensive surgery so he can get back to where he was before. He can play through it. Everything is fine; let’s play at the next show.

But there’s no going back. The doctor explains this, and Ruben, egged on by Lou, begrudgingly checks into a facility for the deaf run by a man named Joe (Paul Raci). Most of the film takes place in this rural retreat, with the sounds of crickets buzzing, the laughter of children at an associated school for the deaf, and the banging on the dinner table as sign language flashes in flurries of conversation. Ruben, however, is repeatedly thrown into situations where he’s isolated. He sits miserably mute while those around him converse in sign language. He can’t communicate with the deaf or the hearing until he learns to adapt to his current situation.

There isn’t an inciting event throughout the film besides Ruben’s deafness. Instead, Marder builds tension from the anxiety of the restless. When Ruben first meets Joe, he’s warned that the retreat isn’t about fixing his ears, but his mindset. Yes, he’ll learn sign language, and he’ll be welcomed to the conversation that goes on silently around the idyllic space. But he has to learn to sit with himself first. Ruben’s always found comfort in activity and noise; it’s this constant “go, go, go” menace that tells him that all the stopping, stillness, and silence means death. The horror of deafness isn’t just the loss of music, but the rejection of change and the deception of normalcy.

As I watched “Sound of Metal,” I couldn’t exactly pry my physical reactions from what was happening on screen. It captures a musician’s journey through deafness with such gritty authenticity that it made my skin crawl. It made me want to run away, or perhaps throw on headphones and revel in the sound of an orchestra, or listen to my favorite song until I could think of nothing but the lyrics. Marder submerges his audience in pure empathy to the point where the viewer, like Ruben, needs to escape.

Once we step away from the screen, however, there’s this realization that we’re experiencing precisely what Ruben is. We’ve been in quarantine for nearly an entire year, and there’s an accepted sense of optimism that looks to the future when we can all be in person again and everything will be the same as it were before the coronavirus. And yet “Sound of Metal'' fights for the opposite, in all its sensitive and silent glory. It makes me think of music at a funeral, the haunting mark of an ending, a requiem of sorts. But Ruben can’t hear the music. He can’t bring himself near the coda and stays hovering in a continuous cycle of yearning—all for a reality that he can’t get back to.