Sound of Metal: Throbbing Eternity
If our lives are stories, our bodies are the pages on which our triumphs, catastrophes, and ecstasies are printed: birthmarks as inheritance and wrinkles as legacy; scars as memories and tattoos as confessionals. In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal (2019), Riz Ahmed’s Ruben Stone bares all of himself from the first moment he appears on-screen, shirtless and intent behind a drum kit. His head is bowed as if in prayer as he waits for his cue; the only light in the room gleams off the cymbals, as dirty-gold as his bleached hair. Below the gaze he directs at his partner and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke), the words “Kill Me Please” are inked across his chest, Lou’s name is a cursive scrawl on his right arm, and “ALIVE ALONE” spans his ten fingers. The tattoos look as natural on him as his monitor earphones, and they tell a certain story, about extremes of self-loathing and survival and about loneliness and resilience. “There’s gotta be another way,” Ruben will say later in the film, when he suddenly loses over 70 percent of his hearing, but Sound of Metal isn’t about what could be. It is about accepting the randomness and dynamism of what is, and moving forward out of what was to carve a new life. It is about turning the page and finding a beginning in what seemed like an ending.
In the months following Sound of Metal’s late-2020 theatrical and streaming releases, significant awards recognition came for Marder, Ahmed, and supporting actor Paul Raci, a child of deaf adults (CODA) whose first language was American Sign Language (ASL) and who, like his character, served in the Vietnam War. In March 2021, the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Actor (Ahmed was the first Muslim ever in this category), and won for Best Film Editing and Best Sound—deserved acknowledgments of Sound of Metal’s technical triumphs. But it hadn’t necessarily been an easy path for Marder and his collaborators, who worked on the project for over a decade. The film originated in a different form, with a different name and a different director: In 2007, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance began working on a feature called Metalhead, inspired by his own days as a drummer and experience with tinnitus. A story took shape about a drummer who loses his hearing and tries to raise money for a cochlear implant; after the production stalled, Cianfrance gave Marder—his friend and his cowriter on The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)—his blessing to adapt the idea for himself. So with Marder and his brother Abraham writing the script, their late grandmother and her experience with hearing loss informing their research, and Cianfrance retaining a story credit and staying on as an executive producer, Metalhead became Sound of Metal.
The Place Beyond the Pines script begins with a quote from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: “He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed.” That passage, with its intimations of both the irreversibility of time and the way it mutates and ensnares us, applies as well to Ruben as it does to motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) in The Place Beyond the Pines: both characters open their films in moments of intense focus and niche infamy. In The Place Beyond the Pines, Luke, overcome by the need to provide for his son, starts robbing banks. But after Luke’s death, his son will grow up unaware of who his father really was. That sense of being forgotten and moved on from is exactly what Ruben is fighting against in Sound of Metal, and the film establishes just what it is that he’s afraid to lose in that visceral opening scene of Ruben and Lou, perfectly in sync.
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