by Rebecca M. Alvin
In the past few years there have been a number of films to remind us that film is not just a visual medium, but also an aural one. One of the best ways to showcase sound design in a film is to work with silence, accustomed as we are to constant music, dialogue, and sound effects. Films such as John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, or a few years back, Michel Hazanavicious’ nearly silent The Artist, utilize sound so sparingly that it raises our awareness of the audio component of our lives.
Naturally, this strategy lends itself to stories that feature sound or hearing as a subject. In Darius Marder’s 2019 film Sound of Metal, we begin in a world of sound—the loud, driving music of the protagonist Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) hardcore band performing onstage in a nightclub. We are then shown the relationship between Ruben and Lou (Olivia Cooke), the singer in the band and also his girlfriend. But Ruben’s world quickly crumbles before our eyes as he begins to experience severe tinitis and eventually hearing loss and the idyllic on-the-road life of the couple is suddenly thrown into turmoil as gigs must be canceled and Ruben must face demons he thought he’d put to rest in the past, including his drug addiction.
Early in the film when Ruben is trying to talk to his addiction sponsor, Hector, on the phone, despite being unable to hear him, he repeats what he imagines Hector would be saying to him if he could hear him. He says, “Serenity is when you stop wishing for a different past.” This explicit statement ultimately provides a framework for thinking about Ruben’s continual inability to accept the reality he has been dealt. Through the unnervingly realistic sound design, which emulates the aural experience of hearing loss, our frustration builds almost as much as his does. His struggle to accept his deafness is matched by his struggle to accept his vulnerability and the urgency with which he must embrace a changing identity.
Sound of Metal won Academy Awards for Best Editing and Best Sound and won Independent Spirit awards for Best First Feature, Best Male Lead, and Best Supporting Male Lead, and, not surprisingly, won or was nominated for key industry awards. Ahmed received the Excellence in Acting Award at the last year’s Provincetown International Film Festival. Excellent acting
and narrative restraint that avoids easy conclusions or simple political correctness, combined with extraordinary sound design, make Sound of Metal a thought-provoking cinematic experience. We’re left thinking less about the specifics of the deaf community, addiction, or the underlying love story in the film and more about the concept of stillness, the idea of silence in a world of constant noise coming at us and from within us. The film’s success among critics and audiences is no surprise, and it is a wonderful choice for the Provincetown Film Society’s Film Art Series, concerned as it is with stimulating dialogue about movies that matter.
Sound of Metal is showing as part of the Film Art Series
at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl. in the Whalers Wharf Mall, Wednesday, April 20, 7 p.m. For tickets and information visit provincetownfilm.org/cinema.