TIFF 2019: Sound of Metal, by David Bax

There’s a small but revealing moment early in Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s fiction feature debut. When our protagonist is offered help from a faith-based initiative, he reflexively refuses it on the grounds that he is “very much not religious,” before being reminded that the church in question seeks to help people, not religious people. Sound of Metal isn’t a movie about religion or charity but this episode speaks to the film’s true concern, how narrow ways of thinking can lead to us hurting ourselves.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a noisy art-metal band, touring the Midwest in an Airstream with his girlfriend, the band’s vocalist, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Ruben’s a four-year sober addict and health nut who wears shirts featuring the logos of hardcore acts like Youth of Today and Rudimentary Peni and experimental/industrial behemoths Einstürzende Neubauten (as well as more that I didn’t recognize) but spends his mornings exercising, making smoothies and dancing with Lou to slow-swinging jazz music. Until, that is, before a show one night, he suddenly loses more than 70% of his hearing. A panicked visit to a doctor reveals that this is only going to get worse. Sound of Metal details Ruben’s journey from the hearing world to the deaf one; the tension comes from whether or not he’ll be able to make the transition intact.

Marder proves himself a natural cinematic storyteller but Sound of Metal is built in a such a way that it is dependent on the skill of its cast. Luckily, they come through beautifully (suggesting that Marder is a damn good director of actors as well). Most of the weight falls on Ahmed, who has spent the past decade proving his magnetic naturalism. Cooke, so good in 2017’s Thoroughbreds, succeeds in the difficult task of being away for most of the film but having to make so strong an impression that we never stop feeling her absence. A slightly lesser known standout, though, is Paul Raci as Joe, who leads a sort of long-term, therapeutical retreat for deaf addicts and who, with a voice like Peter Coyote, soothes and commands in equal measure.

Marder, who dedicates the film to a deaf relative, worked extensively with the deaf community; many of Ruben’s fellow addicts at the retreat are played by deaf actors. Furthermore, Marder intends the film to be screened with closed captions on, so hearing and deaf people can experience it together. He even provides a minor privilege to the latter group, conspicuously not captioning or subtitling dialogue that is only carried out in sign language. Even before we meet the other deaf characters, though, Marder plays with the sound mix, nearly drowning out conversations between Ruben and Lou beneath the Airstream’s engine or guitar feedback. Ironically, the dialogue becomes more intelligible to hearing viewers as Ruben becomes more fluent in sign language.

It becomes increasingly clear, however, that this is not a movie about deafness. Like last year’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (in this way and this way only), Sound of Metal is a movie about addiction hidden inside a movie about a different kind of recovery. Ahmed walks a line, portraying Ruben as a sensitive, intelligent man who is nevertheless liable to succumb to his own boiling fury, not because he can no longer hear but because he’s lost the illusion of control.

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