Continuing off the aesthetic of his collaboration with Derek Cianfrance on The Place Beyond the Pines, Darius Marder offers a sensitive, heartfelt look at the deaf community in his fiction feature debut, Sound of Metal. Containing a powerful lead performance from Riz Ahmed, the movie navigates its way through social and economical difficulties to present an intimate look at the life of a drummer whose world crumbles beneath him when he discovers he has lost his ability to hear. Sound of Metal is often emotional and provocative, but unfortunately by dragging itself to the end of its exhausting runtime, the impact is softened.
From the high-decibel destruction a metal concert can do to one’s hearing, to the importance people put on being able to hear another individual, Sound of Metal provides a much-needed exploration of adult hearing loss. Ruben (Ahmed) is a metal drummer for Blackgammon, a two-piece metal band fronted by his girlfriend, Louise (Olivia Cooke, who is remarkable when she is present in the film). When he suddenly loses his hearing mid-tour, Ruben finds himself forced to confront the reality of his disability. Where Marder’s film excels is in its depiction of the struggle and the honest realization that hearing loss does not mean the end of a life. Instead, he reinforces the notion that it is merely another way of looking at the world — just one that he is suddenly thrust into without any decision on his part. While Ruben clings to the notion that there is a fix in cochlear implants, he is introduced to a community that adjusts his mindset and helps him cope with the new lifestyle that he inhabits.
Most interesting in Sound of Metal is how the film itself is presented. Utilizing captioning and subtitles offers different points of view more readily, and provides those who are hearing impaired just as much of the film as those who are not. This decision lets Sound of Metal sit in silence for a bit, demonstrating a more meditative and attentive approach to conversations and the world around Ruben. Marder simply posits that life can continue if one’s frame of mind is shifted.
There are many heartbreaking and devastating moments here, but Sound of Metal unfortunately has a hard time keeping momentum between them. Ahmed essentially keeps the throughline as the story starts going into auto-pilot in its second-half. The entire trajectory is telegraphed, and for better or worse, it gives the exact arc that is expected of Ruben. If it wasn’t for Ahmed’s performance, as well as the time Ruben spends in the deaf community, it would be much duller than it is. Fortunately, things starts off absurdly strong and carry forward until that second-half, where everything begins feeling like it’s just there for the sake of continuity.
There is an importance to Marder’s film, as it shines light on many aspects of the deaf community and deafness as a whole, which should not go overlooked. He handles it all with a sensitivity and dedication that holds up throughout, even when things starts maintaining a singular narrative direction. Sound of Metal is a film with a clear vision of its motivations and why it exists, which makes it an absolutely stunning work at times that just doesn’t fully stick the landing. More storytellers need to show this level of sensitivity to disability culture when centering their film around it, and Marder does it here to an effective degree.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15