By Zoe Kurland.
We too feel the disastrous consequences: one dramatic pop and the sound is yanked from our clutches, leaving both the audience and Ruben underwater.”
In a 1998 interview for Guitar World, The Smashing Pumpkins’ front man Billy Corgan described Heavy Metal as “a universal energy.” “It’s the sound of a volcano,” he said, “It’s rock, it’s earth shattering. Somewhere in our primal being we understand.” Metal documentarian Sam Dunn displays similar reverence: “You either feel it or you don’t. If metal doesn’t give you that overwhelming surge of power that makes the hair stand up at the back of your neck, you might never get it.” Others are less enthused; musician Ian Gillan of “Smoke on the Water” fame once called metal “a pile of puke.” But at the end of the day, it seems an agreed upon fact that Metal exists in a realm beyond music, as a tangible feeling rather than a sound, a bodily thing defying typical notions of legibility.
In the opening scene of Darius Marder’s latest film, The Sound of Metal, a low, ominous tone rings through a cave-like concert venue where we find Ruben (a spectacular Riz Ahmed) sitting before a drum set. His shock of bleached hair, white and fuzzy as TV static, radiates a halo-like light as he raises his drumsticks. His girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), stands before a roiling crowd, screaming unintelligible lyrics into a microphone. They are part of a metal band called Blackgammon, and have built their life on this specific, hair-raising brand of sound. Ruben smashes his drumsticks down, filling the venue with noise. The camera weaves through the scene, immersing us in the sweaty soup of it all: the sound of drumming, passion, and amp feedback closing in. Suddenly, a smash cut spits us out into the warm quietude of a morning in Ruben and Lou’s airstream, a juxtaposition so sensorially harsh it takes a minute to adjust. Ruben rouses first, then drums on Lou sweetly to wake her; in any setting, music is their shared language, their bodies the instruments.
Marder gifts us a quiet scene of Ruben’s morning routine: coffee drips into a pot, a blender whirs, and the lid clatters off a jar of cinnamon. These sounds might go unnoticed, but the next morning, when Ruben wakes up after another loud show, he finds this comforting din muffled to near absence, a shift made tangible by the incredible talents of sound designer Nicolas Becker, who strategically mutes Ruben’s world throughout the film, ensuring we’re right beside him as his world changes. When Ruben chooses to play the next show, we too feel the disastrous consequences: one dramatic pop and the sound is yanked from our clutches, leaving both the audience and Ruben underwater.
With little backstory as to how they met, Ahmed and Cooke skillfully portray a couple so interconnected it seems as though they have not only lived around but within one another. When Ruben’s eyes widen (watch Nightcrawler or The Night Of to see just how beautifully Ahmed manipulates his instrument), Lou’s eyes widen in response, the twin jitters at the edges of their actions subtly conveying what we later learn is a shared history of addiction. When Lou and Ruben part ways so that he can join a deaf community-cum-recovery program, the unlatching is palpable; Ruben insists that once he’s able to afford a cochlear implant, they can get back on the road and return to business as usual, but from the look on Lou’s face, we understand that this is a major rift, and things may never be the same.
But just because life is different, it doesn’t mean it’s lesser than; deafness might be an obstacle, but beyond the initial shock lies a world of untold possibilities. Much like Josh Aronson’s documentary Sound and Fury, Marder takes a firm stance on exploring and embracing deaf culture, taking care to show us the poetry in the motions of sign language, the distinct rhythm and lyricism of the speech. The leader of Ruben’s program, Joe, played with understated authenticity by Paul Raci, carries this message with grace; so often, group therapy leaders can come off as cloying, patronizing, or heavily moralistic characters, but Joe leads Ruben into the deaf world with firm and graceful hand. In one scene, a table full of deaf people speak to one another over dinner and we register the sounds their hands make as they arc through the air, land on the table, or come together to make a word or phrase. What results is a kind of alternative Metal: an explosive array of percussive communication that hums with an energy of its own. The pastoral idyll of the community further emphasizes the message; in one scene, Ruben shares a moment of quietude with a child from the local school. He sits at the bottom of a steel slide and drums a beat; the vibrations travel up to the kid at the top, who echoes the pattern back to Ruben, a physical manifestation of new planes of connection.
Marder makes some uneasy but effective parallels between Ruben’s addiction to drugs and his desire to hear again. Cochlear implants might buy Ruben him some sound, but they cannot buy him peace; he’s chasing an ephemeral high. Unfortunately, Ruben only begins to wrap his head around this when he’s already defected from the community and gotten his implant. “This is not sound like you remember,” says the doctor, fiddling with the levels as one does when setting up equipment at a gig. The experience reveals sound for what it is—a complex array of pathways that one can revisit, change, or imitate, but never fully emulate. When Ruben reconnects with Lou, he finds that the past is a similar beast, a branching thing to which he can’t return. They meet together in a different bed (one without wheels) and they seem, for once, out of sync, not because of Ruben’s deafness, but simply because time has passed.
The title, The Sound of Metal, sparks with multiplicity. It could refer to metal music as Corgan and Dunn see it: a powerful smash of feeling. It could also allude to the sound of metallic things, the way hands sound drumming on a steel slide, or the way the world sounds to Ruben after his implant, the arrhythmic waves running through his newly installed circuitry. I’d like to think that it’s all of this plus a double entendre: metal as in “mettle,” one’s ability to cope well with difficulties or face a demanding situation with resilience. This type of mettle is often deeply internal, a thing earned and honed over time, the soundless process of grieving the past, then, at last, accepting things as they are.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.