Monday 12 April 2021

On demand: "Sound of Metal"

Darius Marder's
Sound of Metal both streamlines and intensifies last November's Mogul Mowgli. That Riz Ahmed vehicle was topheavy with issues of identity this American indie can take for granted; the very British bathos of the earlier film - with its protagonist who was reduced to texting an ex for nudes, and who eventually had to be helped off the toilet by his own parents - has been replaced by a familiarly American can-do confidence, some sense that there isn't a problem that cannot be overcome. We're still watching Riz Ahmed fall into physical disrepair; it's just that now he starts out with his shirt off, and his character will come to live with his condition. Sound of Metal is less of an editorial than Mogul Mowgli, and more - far more - of a show. From the off: we meet Ahmed's Ruben, drummer for the thrash-metal duo Blackgammon, at a gig we're parachuted into in the opening moments. The volume of this especially angular and aggressive noise does indeed suggest war being waged: there are around 25 people in the crowd, and that instinctively seems around 23 too many. On the tourbus Ruben pilots with bandmate and lover Lulu (Olivia Cooke), however, the air is filled with sweet, old-timey love songs and slow jams: metal's the day job, or night shift. (There's a reason they call it industrial.) Yet without ear protectors, making that racket is taking its toll. At a second gig, Ruben appears miles away, the result of his hearing coming and going; a few moments later, it's comprehensively gone - as has the bulk of the film's own sound, replaced by that disconcertingly dull drone one hears after being underwater for too long. From then on, Ruben is a young man trapped inside his own head, and - as Sound of Metal goes on to demonstrate - that's not an altogether healthy place for a young man with addiction issues to find himself.

For much of its duration, the film is a competition. Who's working hardest? Is it Marder and his technicians, immersing us in their protagonist's silence by consciously sabotaging their soundtrack, thereby reminding us of the privilege of full hearing? Or is it Ahmed, obliged to connect all this technical virtuosity to the daily reality Ruben has to live and suffer through? It's possible that internal struggle - one of several set up and set running here - ends in an old-fashioned tie. Those early gig scenes establish what's at stake here, and they're likely to sound brutalising even to dewy-eared teenagers drawn here by the photogenic young leads. Yet Ruben and Lulu's offstage relationship has been pitched at a similar intensity: if not quite the full Kurt-and-Courtney, then high-maintenance nevertheless, what happens when damaged people get together to thrash something out. Witness the scene in which Lulu takes her leave of Ruben for the foreseeable, knowing she has to walk away for the stubborn sticksman to seek the kind of therapeutic assistance he sorely needs; here, Cooke and Ahmed, very much the up-and-comers, go toe-to-toe with anybody else in this year's acting awards stakes. All of which leaves us with Ruben checking into a treatment facility, which could be movie Squaresville or Conventional City, except that this particular treatment facility is one of surely only a handful of facilities specifically tailored to the needs of Deaf addicts, and the sign language hereabouts won't be translated for the benefit of the hearing crowd. Thus Marder, his cast and crew lead us into a world-within-a-world; we have to adjust and adapt, much as Ruben has to his condition.

Holing up here gives Ahmed - and the film - the opportunity to go deeper into this character than any number of afternoon TV movies addressing Deafness as their subject. The worst thing to befall Ruben isn't that it's all gone quiet between his ears; as the centre's manager Joe (a nice promotion for lived-in TV veteran Paul Raci) insists, "We don't regard being Deaf as a handicap." No, it's that this silence forces Ruben to confront the storm that was always raging inside his head, and which the noise of the outside world (not least that generated by Blackgammon in concert) hitherto allowed him to drown out. Spot the quivering fear Ahmed channels when Ruben is ushered into an empty room offering no more than a pen and paper to distract him. How does someone used to living in a state of heightened stimulation - someone who only reluctantly gave up his smartphone upon entering the facility - deal with that emptiness? That's a question the movies haven't really asked in relation to Deafness, and this one has a good answer: that it might just serve as the gateway to some form of tranquility, and raise the possibility of self-acceptance. Marder never rushes that process of realisation. His film runs just under two hours, allowing us to feel our way inside and around Ruben's predicament, and eventually back out into the world. As a director, he's acutely alert to the potential pitfalls of this kind of material. Crucially, we hear no music beyond that Ruben generates for himself; there's never any overt attempt to manipulate viewer response. Given how Ruben got into this situation, maybe it's inevitable that his path through it should be a rocky road. Yet it makes for a far less predictable trajectory than Sound of Metal's logline might suggest, and also leads to an ending that struck these ears, at least, as pretty much perfect.

Sound of Metal is now streaming via Prime Video; it's currently scheduled to open in UK cinemas on May 17.

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