starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Mathieu Amalric, Paul Raci
written by Abraham Marder & Darius Marder
directed by Darius Marder
by Angelo Muredda It comes as a pleasant jolt that there's a lot to say about Sound of Metal, The Place Beyond the Pines' co-screenwriter Darius Marder's feature debut. On paper, the story of Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a noise-metal drummer and recovering addict who suddenly loses his hearing in the middle of a tour with his girlfriend and musical partner Lou (Olivia Cooke), seems like the stuff of a run-of-the-mill disability melodrama about learning to appreciate life's little pleasures in silence. And though it veers close to something like that message in its final moments, which threaten to put a bow on a rather messy human drama, the film is surprisingly complicated about the new worlds, sensory experiences, and cultures in which Ruben is being initiated.
Raci is a mesmerizing presence as Joe, and the film stumbles into some rich ambiguities concerning able-bodied tourists and deaf initiates' ideas about deafness and cure through him. Joe's intentions in isolating the sweet but vulnerable addict in his care from his only real support network are tough to parse, especially since he makes little effort to utilize Ruben's musical potential around the home. Either the chronically unfunded facility needs a steady stream of new converts-turned-teachers or Joe genuinely believes that Ruben needs to have a new identity as a deaf person and be immersed in this particular deaf community before he can start thinking about reintegrating into the wider world. Whatever it is, Joe turns out to be more or less right about the implant, which the film presents as largely a disappointing secondhand interpretation of sound--something an audiophile and musician might rightly turn his nose up at.
Marder's efforts to capture what Ruben hears through the implant--as well as what he hears in the initial moments of his hearing loss, and his sonic indulgences both delicate and loud beforehand with Lou--have earned Sound of Metal praise for its unique soundscape. Though the film is arguably simply about sound design more than it's an evocative example of it, that's still a reasonably fair compliment, insofar as Marder endeavours to render several rarely-depicted sonic experiences, tying his tight, intimate close-ups on Ahmed, who is very strong, to the immersive sound design as a way of further evoking his perspective.
Whether those efforts (or the hearing actor Ahmed's casting) yield anything genuinely interesting or are just another case of disability imitation by non-disabled filmmakers is a question best left to deaf critics to answer. So is the relative wisdom of the film's hardline argument against cochlear implants, which are treated here as unaffordable prosthetics used to mitigate loss instead of adapting to the possibilities deafness offers. But there's undeniably something affecting and unorthodox about Marder's refusal to hack and slash his character out of his disability, refusing the magic-cure trope to entertain the idea, in a way few disability movies made by largely non-disabled creatives have done, that disability might be a culture rather than a problem--a beginning rather than an ending to someone's story. Programme: Platform