Transferring a lived experience is one of cinema’s largest challenges, though it is one essentially at the heart of film itself. We are asked to sympathise with characters we’ve never met, nor situations we’ve ever known, the extent to which we do so is entirely dependent on several factors. This is particularly telling when it comes to the loss of sensual sensation, where films such as 2016’s Notes on Blindness, and Derek Jarman’s experimental masterpiece Blue attempt to transfer the lived experience of blindness. The world both films present is one attached to the very boundaries of reality, still recognisable, though otherwise alien. Darius Marder’s stunning Sound of Metal is very similar, placing the viewer in a position so painfully on the periphery of reality; suddenly, everything moves with a new context.
The language of sound, or the lack thereof, in Marder’s film is illustrated by life’s simplicities, as Ruben (Riz Ahmed) potters around his cluttered RV. Filter coffee drips from a machine, blinds clumsily clatter closed, and the quiet cars of the outer world sound more like the lapping waves of the ocean. This is offset by the opening scene in which he and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) perform at a wildly thundering rock gig, in which Ruben manically strikes his drum kit as if in a crazed trance. Minutes before his subsequent performance days later, a fine high-pitched tone rings endlessly in his ear, a monotone note reducing his noisy world to a hum.
We, and Riz Ahmed’s Ruben, are plunged into an almost alien world, an isolated bubble still rooted in reality yet detached from ourselves and those around us. It’s a truly transporting experience with credit to several subtly spectacular choices from director Darius Marder, as well as a heartwrenching central performance from Riz Ahmed.
Navigating his new life, Ruben and Lou discover a deaf community in which he can learn to recover from his disability, one which physically detaches itself from reality and cuts all ties to the outside world. Here, sound flickers with periodic life, largely in its rawest form in the vibrations of musical instruments and metallic reverberation. Ruben mimics drumming at the bottom of a slide whilst at the top, a young boy lies and absorbs the musical vibrations, staring outward with meditative serenity. It’s a subtly powerful scene, made all the more impactful upon discovery that the large majority of the cast in the community are deaf in real life.
Music fades, and effects are largely reduced to simplicity in a feat of creative artistry as the sound design morphs into a storytelling device. Redundant to those in the film, the sound joins the audience in the characters’ quietude whilst providing the occasional fleeting breeze or birdsong. Such creates a sympathetic and sensitive portrait of an individual’s life in painful transition, one torn between his joyous past and the unforeseen present that he now experiences. Ahmed’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of this broken individual is a career-best, one brimming with frustration, regret, and psychological torture. The focus on his character detracts from further depth into Lou, his girlfriend played by Olivia Cooke, though the chemistry between the two makes up for this, portraying a painful relationship seemingly steeped in history.
The moving experience created by Darius Marder and screenwriter (and brother) Abraham Marder reflects the troubles and anxieties of a tumultuous 2020, as many have come to terms with unforeseen circumstances. Calm, still, and subtle, Sound of Metal wonderfully asks you to reflect on the clamour of life and find the value in its tranquillity.