Baggies Nomination #4:
“Sound of Metal” (2019), brought to the screen by director Darius Marder, is a beautifully quiet unusual drama that focuses solely on its characters, their emotions and their ideologies. It is intimate with tons of heart and encompasses stunning naturalistic cinematography and brilliant, unrelenting sound design (by Nicolas Becker). Born from a screenplay by Marder and writing partner Abraham Marder, the story is about a musician who loses his hearing. It is about addiction, dependency, acceptance and the inescapable nature of time.
Starring Riz Ahmed as Ruben and Olivia Cooke as Lou, we are introduced to the duo as they perform in their heavy metal grunge rock band Blackgammon in an underground show. Lou is on vocals with bleached eyebrows and hardcore showmanship. Ruben is on drums, bleached mohawk and matching her intensity. All of the sudden, the sound is muzzled, buried, jolted and we begin to understand that Ruben is losing his hearing. It is rapid and searing. The way the film is constructed, as Ruben experiences this loss, the audience does too. The movie jostles from Ruben’s lacking sense of sound to the louder world. After evidently living in denial for a period of time, we meet Ruben when he is at his breaking point and finally comes clean to Lou about his detriment, sending him reluctantly on an entirely new path.
It is the directorial debut of Darius Marder, who has written this from a story by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine” 2010). Marder previously collaborated with writer/director Cianfrance when they co-wrote another Ryan Gosling heartwrencher “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2010). Cianfrance had previously played drums for a metal band, but quit as he experienced tinnitus – the experience of ringing or other noises in one or both of your ears. Nonetheless, he had shot footage of the heavy metal band Jucifer and Marder began to edit Cianfrance’s footage during his downtime. Though the story was heavily inspired by Cianfrance’s own memories, he made it clear that he was not going to make the film. Marder had his hands on the script and [with Cianfrance’s blessing], said, “I found this little abandoned baby that I needed to raise, and I did.” It took 13 years to come to fruition. Undoubtedly, the film has tons of heart. But what is refreshing and unexpected is where this heart lives within the story. It refuses to revel in the loss, but chooses to illustrate what is gained through the newfound silence.
As a recovering drug addict, Ruben finds himself at a rural rehab for the deaf community, run by a Vietnam veteran and addict named Joe (the impeccable Paul Raci). Speaking about this casting gold mine, Marder said, “(Raci) did two tours in Vietnam, dealt with addiction, grew up in deaf culture, and his first language is ASL. He is a seasoned actor, an artist with such fine control of his craft. There could be no one else to play that role.” While in the facility, Ruben is unabating in his intent on getting his life back to “normal.” Ironically, the film came about at a time when culture in general was experience the same tunnel vision of sentiment (with the pandemic). “Everyone is saying, ‘I can’t wait to get back,’ and I have to say, I don’t think we will,” Marder said in one interview. “I don’t think that’s how the world works. We won’t go back. It will be different, and it will be something we don’t understand right now. We either adapt and accept, or we get run over. That’s the entire concept of this Sound of Metal.”
A sub-layer to the story is Ruben’s co-dependent relationship with Lou and how their forced separation illuminates the problematic nature of their intense attachment. Portrayed with the utmost conviction and mutual chemistry, it is hard to believe that the two roles were initially given to two completely different people: in 2016, it was announced that Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson had joined the cast of the film. Eventually, and for reasons unknown, that did not pan out, allowing openings for Ahmed and Cooke. When speaking with Naomi Scott for Interview Magazine, Olivia Cooke recounts how she got the role: “That came about because another actress had fallen out of the job. I’m the king of filling in the space. Even if I’m offered the job outright, I’m like, ‘They probably fucking want Emma Watson instead.’ Not only does it explore a culture that I was so ignorant to, but it explores codependency and addiction and it does it in this really heartfelt, nuanced way. I was crying so much that the flight attendant came by and passed me a piece of chocolate.” Though, Shoenaerts and Johnson are phenomenal actors in their own right, it is difficult to watch the finish product and imagine anyone else. It would unquestionably be a different movie had the leads gone to A-listers, just like it might have been a different picture if it had not been released during a global phenomenon. Cooke and Ahmed are excellent – and especially Riz Ahmed who rose to distinction after starring in the HBO drama “The Night Of.” In preparing for the role, Ahmed spent six months learning how to play drums and learning ASL. “I could see it in (Ahmed): He was hungry; he was game; he was scared; he was courageous,” Marder said of his lead. “During that meeting [a lunch meeting in 2017], I found someone who was interested in going down to the mat for this role, who would lay himself bare and be out of control.”
“Sound of Metal” has a slow pace, but is not boring at all. It is quiet and meditative. It relishes in being present; in challenging the way we experience the world; in appreciating the world. It reflects on the adaptability of the human spirit and its way of replenishing itself. When we want to, we can grow from what is lost, instead of drown. It is a powerful story that exists within the stillness of the world and it comes at the perfect time.