I don’t get out to concerts as much as I used to (I mean, nobody does right now, but you know what I mean). There was a time, however, back in my early 20s, when I found myself constantly buzzing around Boston’s rock clubs, alternating my evenings between snot-nosed indie rockers, resuscitated punk rock dinosaurs, and outsider weirdos known primarily to socially stunted cratediggers. Like many in this stage of their lives, I had a lot of profoundly silly ideas about what constituted “authenticity” versus “sell-out” behavior, and played at living by a “code” while bobbing my head to distorted guitars and incoherent screams. Of these principles, few were as misguided as my aversion to earplugs. “If you’re listening through foam rubber, are you really hearing it?” I would self-righteously ask myself as I strained against the onslaught of sound. The answer, of course, is yes, and after probably too many shows which left me walking around for days feeling like I had ears full of cotton, I smartened up. When the curse lifts and we can go back to shows, don’t be a dumbass. Wear your earplugs, kids.
If that old codger pep talk didn’t sway you, Darius Marder’s new film Sound of Metal will almost certainly scare you straight. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, the ferocious drummer of noise-rock duo Blackgammon. A recovering addict, Ruben is clearly a man with his share of demons, but he keeps them at bay by doing what he loves: criss-crossing the country in his airstream camper with his vocalist/manager/girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), gigging every night and recording in their off-hours. Then, one night, while setting up the merch table at what appears to be Brighton Music Hall (the film was shot primarily in Massachusetts, though it doesn’t necessarily take place here), the sound abruptly cuts out. And not in the PA, either: a trip to the clinic reveals that years of auditory abuse have obliterated Ruben’s hearing. Ruben at first tries to power through it– his rhythm is good enough that he can fake it through a gig or two– but no one can keep a secret like that for very long, and Lou, wisely fearing a relapse, drags Ruben to a halfway house for the hearing impaired. Denial, of course, is a powerful thing– Ruben insists that this is only a temporary setback until he can scare up the funds for a set of hearing implants– but the longer he spends learning to cope with his affliction, the more he realizes that reality is more complicated.
Sound of Metal is a sweet, melancholy character study about a deeply flawed man learning to cope with personal tragedy. In many ways, however– certainly to anyone who’s spent much time around music, which I imagine is much of the Hassle’s readership– it is scarier than any horror movie. Through boldly innovative sound design, Marder drops us into Ruben’s head, allowing us to hear the world as he hears it (or rather, as he doesn’t hear it) while we watch his panicked face struggle to understand what’s happening. In these scenes, voices are muffled, buried under a high-pitched whine, an effect all the more disconcerting when we cut back to Lou and hear what we should be hearing. As Ruben becomes acclimated, the effect is less jarring, both because we become used to it and because the signing of his fellow support group members becomes subtitled as he learns the language.
But the existential terror never quite goes away, thanks in large part to Ahmed’s powerful performance. Ahmed’s naturally bulging eyes become something of a running gag– he is playfully given a name sign mimicking owl eyes, and jokes early on about wondering if his real father was Jeff Goldblum– but he perfectly deploys them to express the anxiety of a man unused to expressing his anxiety, who is in denial of the fact that his life has suddenly, irrevocably changed. In his quiet moments, Ruben always looks like he’s mapping out an escape plan; when he lets his fears get the best of him, he’s like a caged animal. As written, Ruben is far from the most articulate guy in the world– there’s probably a reason he found an artistic outlet that relies on pounding rather than words– but thanks to Ahmed’s soulful presence, we are never in doubt of what he’s feeling.
Sound of Metal is often devastating, and it ends on a deliberately unresolved note, but it is far from a hopeless film. When Ruben is at the halfway house, the camaraderie and support he finds among the community there is truly heartwarming, particularly with the children who are also learning sign language for the first time. And even though she’s absent for much of the film as Ruben battles his demons, the love he shares with Lou carries him– and us– through much of the ordeal (Cooke has spent the past few years quietly becoming one of our most dependable actresses; if you haven’t, please track down and watch her terrifying and hilarious performance in Thoroughbreds). As Ruben’s mentor calmly explains to him, it is the position of the deaf community that lack of hearing is not a disability or something to fix, but simply a different way of living. It’s clear from Ruben’s face that he’s not ready to arrive at that conclusion yet, but Marder gives us plenty of reason to believe that he will.
All that being said: please, please, wear your damn earplugs.
Sound of Metal
dir. Darius Marder
Part of IFFBoston’s Fall Focus series
Streaming on Prime 12/4; premieres theatrically 11/20
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