Sound of Metal is a 2019 film directed by Darius Marder. The plot focuses on the story of Ruben, the drummer of a punk-metal duo, and the twists his life takes when he starts losing his hearing. Sound of Metal was nominated for several accolades and won many of them. In particular, it received six nominations at the 2021 Academy Awards and won two: Best Film Editing and Best Sound.
This film is Marder’s directorial debut in fictional cinema. Previously, he directed the documentary Loot and co-wrote the script of The Place Beyond the Pines. With Sound of Metal, Marder won the prize for Outstanding Directing – First-Time Feature Film assigned by the Directors Guild of America.
Deafness: a challenge to accept oneself
Ruben is the drummer of Blackgammon, a music duo in which his girlfriend Lou takes part as the singer. They own a motorhome that serves as a vehicle to travel across the country to play gigs, but also as a home and a recording studio.
They spend most of their time together and show an intense affinity. Furthermore, they are both active in helping each other overcome psychological distress. Ruben is a recovering addict, and the viewer grasps that Lou struggles with self-harm and comes from a difficult family situation.
Ruben soon discovers that the occasional moments of total hearing loss he experiences will become permanent. Reluctantly, he joins a community for recovering deaf addicts. The path designed for him by Joe, the leader of the group, seems to aim at integrating Ruben into the deaf community in the first place. Joe challenges Ruben to accept his deafness as part of his identity and not as a disability. Thus, Ruben attends school lessons with deaf children and learns Sign Language.
Taking a closer look though, Joe tries to guide Ruben in finding the inner peace he missed even when he was still able to hear. Ruben is hectic: when everybody else in the community except him is assigned chores, he looks for things to repair. Then Joe reminds him that he doesn’t “need to fix anything” there; not the roof, and not his hearing.
Ruben identifies himself in his music, his band, and his relationship, but deafness takes all the pillars of his certainties away from him. More than with an inability to hear, he struggles with finding a still place within himself. In the end, Ruben is able to find peace only when he stops chasing it outside of his own mind.
Making art through the search for perfection
This film found its form over more than a decade. Marder firstly decided to take over the unfinished project Metalhead from Derek Cianfrance, who then went on to collaborate on the story of Sound of Metal. Marder stated he spent 13 years searching for the right actors.
The actor Riz Ahmed trained himself for eight months learning to play the drums and to use American Sign Language. Furthermore, Marder insisted that shooting had to take place chronologically, in order to allow the actors to be better able to express their characters’ evolution.
The crew was meticulous from both artistic and technical perspectives. For example, in spite of the low budget, Marder chose to shoot with 35 mm film. Moreover, also because of the central theme, Sound of Metal shows particular care in the sound-making process. The viewer, through the use of the sound, can empathize with Ruben. There is no fear in showing utter silence when he can’t hear, as well as flooding the viewer with noise when they play gigs.
But the sound design is more intricate than that. Volumes, transitions, background noises take part in building the realism of Ruben’s experience. Marder stated that the sound mixing alone took 23 weeks; hisses, crackles, and muffled sounds play a leading role in a film where dialogue is stripped down to the bare necessary.
In the end, Sound of Metal’s search for artistic perfection takes the viewer on a trip into the discovery of deafness. A journey devoid of piety and sensationalism, but rich in empathy towards a man in search of stillness and peace.