“Deaf culture is too big to represent,” says Sound of Metal writer/director Darius Marder. He obviously refers to being represented in its entirety, something no culture can hope to be endowed with over the course of a short two-hour film. That comment comes from the Q&A tied to the Independent Film Festival Boston‘s presentation of Sound of Metal as the Centerpiece of their Fall Focus series, though the film first premiered at TIFF last year (the IFFBoston Q&A is archived on YouTube here and is recommended after you see the movie). Marder, a first-time director, has very consciously depicted a specific subcommunity within deaf society, focusing on one of many, many such citizenries. And yet he’s done so with such artistry that Sound of Metal may teach the hearing community more about deaf culture on the whole than a narrative film ever has.
Though you wouldn’t have seen his name under the Directed By credit before (apart from his 2008 documentary Loot), Marder’s collaboration with his writing partner Derek Cianfrance resulted in The Place Beyond the Pines in 2012. The Ryan Gosling/Bradley Cooper crime thriller boasts one of the most original approaches to a traditional three-act structure you’re likely to find, and in a way that approach can be viewed as precursor to the structure of Marder’s directing debut. And that debut has been a long time coming: when Marder and Cianfrance first met more than a decade ago, one of the stories they discussed was Sound of Metal. Cianfrance, who has also directed Blue Valentine, The Light Between Oceans and the stunning HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True, serves as producer on Sound of Metal.
Technically, the concept of a three-act structure is still intact here. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a heavy metal group, and we’re introduced to him and his aggressively-loud music from the jump. When his hearing suddenly diminishes and then cuts out almost entirely, Ruben understandably panics. He frantically clings to the hearing world, but soon has to learn to begin to accept the deaf world as his new home. A community leader named Joe (Paul Raci) takes him in, and for a while Ruben wrestles with the adjustment. Eventually, when the opportunity arises to restore his hearing through an expensive surgery, Ruben has to effectively choose between these two worlds. So structurally, it’s all there on the page in much the way you’d expect: character loses something vital, learns of a way in which that something is perhaps not vital, and then is asked to decide where he wants to belong.
But the combination of sound design and editing in Sound of Metal make those three movements into a unique arc. The juxtaposition of Ruben’s intense music and the silent passages that follow is haunting, and we’re thrust into Ruben’s experience by a sound mix that continually pivots, occasionally allowing us to hear from an omniscient perspective before moving back into Ruben’s muffled head. The first two acts of the film have a lot of “payoff” shots. First we see a shot of the tour bus accompanied by Ruben’s chatter, a shot of a Magic Bullet blending a smoothie or a coffee pot dripping. Those same shots used without sound later make for a striking payoff, conveying the minute and multitudinous ways in which Ruben’s life has suddenly changed.
Brilliantly, there’s an even further extension of this payoff by the third act. While previous shots aren’t necessarily repurposed again, those scary moments of quietude now become moments of peace. Moments with sound soon seem overwhelming, and Sound of Metal miraculously makes you yearn for a return to that peace. Whereas the initial sequences of silence were unsettling, making you wish for sound to come back, Marder’s achievement here is to mimic Ruben’s journey in the very construction of the film. We’re never a step ahead of Ruben (sequences in American Sign Language are not captioned at first, not until Ruben learns ASL), and so our dependency on the sound design and editing is not unlike that co-dependency characteristic of many deaf communities.
Per Marder’s comments in the IFFBoston Q&A, the sound mix alone took about 23 weeks. Typically thought of as something to be done in post (as in post-picture), Marder and Co. would mix the sound as they cut the film. Ahmed, too, had an extended commitment as an actor, taking 7-8 months prior to rolling to not only learn to play the drums but to become as fluent as possible in ASL. “You have to be able to improvise in ASL,” Marder told him. Any film team needs to be on point to craft a film as powerful and instructive as this, and the level of commitment is apparent in the final film.
Perhaps it’s reductive to offer a criticism of the film’s focus on one specific deaf community, which comes across at times as a gated pseudo-commune isolated in nature. Being deaf does not mean that the binary choice before you is “get the surgery” or “live in isolation”, and despite Marder’s acknowledgement of the true size, depth and varied nature of Capital-D Deaf Culture, Sound of Metal seems to present that singular fork in the road to Ruben. The film moves quickly in the beginning, diving into Ruben’s loss after only one intro concert scene, and this slightly-rushed pacing might contribute to the sense of other unexplored options. Then again, the window of understanding we’re granted likely couldn’t be accomplished without being ingrained in a single community for an extended period of time.
As a musician myself, Sound of Metal was particularly effective. I’ve played at the Middle East in Cambridge, where the concert footage from Sound of Metal was filmed, a club that has since closed permanently in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are other films that successfully use sound design and the unspoken word as a storytelling tool (check out Alice Winocour’s Disorder for one of my favorite examples), but few do so with such purpose as Marder’s debut. Deaf culture may be too big to represent, but Sound of Metal asserts that it’s not too big to understand, and that moments of quiet can also be moments of music.
Sound of Metal premieres in theaters on November 20th and on Amazon Prime on December 4th.