“Films are 50 percent visual and 50 percent sound,” filmmaker David Lynch had once said. “Sometimes, sound even overplays the visual.”
This is certainly true for the Riz Ahmed-starrer Sound of Metal, which tells the story of how a drummer’s life unravels after he starts losing his hearing. Sound, and lack of sound, make this film a truly immersive experience. At a time when filmmakers and storytellers are experimenting with technologies like virtual reality (VR) in their filmmaking, debut director Darius Marder manages to transport his audience with some seemingly simple editing decisions.
We spend a lot of time experiencing the world as the drummer, Ruben (Ahmed), is experiencing it. When he is starting to lose his hearing, the audience also sits through moments of silence. We see the clear sense of frustration on Ruben’s face and feel the noise inside his head, while hearing very little.
When Ruben struggles to take a listening test, we hear the muffled words he is hearing and attempting to repeat. The perspective then shifts, and we see the doctor taking notes as Ruben misidentifies most words, before being unable to decipher them at all.
Marder uses editing techniques that we have seen before. In John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018), silence plays a big role in creating a world where a family is struggling to survive from blind, noise-sensitive creatures. Instead of dramatic music, it is often the lack of sound that brings us to the edge of our seats.
In Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), Baby, a getaway driver, listens to music on his earphones to tune out his surroundings, while driving away from crime scenes. Baby has a milder form of tinnitus, the same ailment that Ruben suffers from in Sound of Metal.
And in countless action films, after loud blasts temporarily knock out the hero, we hear a ringing sound for a few moments as they attempt to re-orient themselves. But for Ruben, instead of a temporary ringing sound, it is a constant mechanical sound; something like a hybrid between a drill and a vacuum cleaner.
With his hearing, Ruben is not only losing one of his senses; he is losing his way of making a livelihood, he is losing the chance to play with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), who he is deeply in love with.
While the sound design plays a big role in making Sound of Metal such a visceral viewing experience, Marder goes a step further to put us in Ruben’s shoes. When Ruben joins a community of deaf recovering addicts, the other residents of the shelter are communicating using American Sign Language (ASL) during dinner. They tease each other, bang on the table and laugh. But Ruben sits there cluelessly, and so do we (the we being audience members who are unfamiliar with ASL). There are no subtitles during this scene. Subtitles for the sign language appear on screen only after Ruben has started learning ASL.
Of course, all these subtle storytelling decisions would fall flat if it weren’t for Ahmed’s quietly powerful performance. Ahmed invites us to go on Ruben’s journey, to become him. Ruben is angry. He has not had an easy life. But he is also vulnerable. He is also scared. He also hides a lot of sorrow in his eyes.
At one point during the film, Joe (Paul Raci), the man who runs the shelter, says Ruben reminded him of an owl when he first came in. “O-W-L?” Ruben double-checks in ASL. After Joe’s confirmation, Ruben looks at him with his puppy-dog eyes and tells him “F*** you,” using a hand gesture we’re all familiar with.
It may seem like Ahmed has effortlessly transformed into Ruben, but he learnt both ASL and drumming for the role. All this has not gone unnoticed. Ahmed has already received a Golden Globe nomination and is almost certainly going to get a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars as well (not only is he deserving, there is lesser competition this year as many possible contenders were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic).
This award season Ahmed, like his character Ruben, might end things on a high note.
While it may not appear that way from the film’s premise, Sound of Metal is surprisingly hopeful. Ultimately, the noise inside Ruben’s head subsides and he experiences peace and quiet — a rare feat, indeed.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 28th, 2021