Few films are teed up to make all the wrong narrative decisions quite like SOUND OF METAL. I was so worried about all the cheesy directions a film about a drummer suffering from deafness could have gone: Riz Ahmed’s leading man falling in love with a deaf elementary school teacher, writing lyrics in his journal that he sends to his rockstar girlfriend to sing, having a melodramatic relapse, the list goes on, but somehow, against all odds, director Darius Marder successfully bypasses all of these traps and creates a film that is infinitely more rewarding as a result. It treats its characters with an incredible amount of tenderness. SOUND OF METAL is a melancholy character drama about a man learning to live without the things that gave him purpose in the wake of his sobriety. Though just about everything regarding the central conflict of hearing loss is handled terrifically, the sobriety angle isn’t quite as sharp.
It’s like the film had a miraculous grasp on its central romance and the passionate embers burning inside of our protagonist, but used its AA setting as a cardboard backdrop without considering how all of that messy backstory may affect the protagonist’s musical identity. Sure, a “Please Kill Me” tattoo says a thing or two about a guy’s past, but addicts-turned-musicians are a very specific type of person, and unfortunately this all rears its ugly head when you realize that Riz Ahmed isn’t a good drummer… Like, at all. While this doesn’t seem to matter for much of the movie, since his drumming isn’t at the forefront of the storytelling, the film’s musical scenes depict him as a drummer first and an addict second when it’s clearly supposed to be the other way around. That matters more than you might think.
If Ahmed’s character profile is built around the idea that he’s been off heroin for four years and sober in large part due to a supportive girlfriend with whom he has dedicated a music career to, he ought to be introduced as someone who is obsessed with his technical proficiency, or at least in some way completely committed to the art of drumming. The production design indicates that he’s a music nerd, what with all his expensive hi-fi gear, but his addictive personality doesn’t manifest anywhere in his status quo: I didn’t know he had an addiction until it was made explicitly clear near the end of the first act. Instead, we get an overlong opening scene that says next to nothing of value of Ahmed’s character or his two-person band. They aren’t a particularly brilliant duo, and he doesn’t seem to be a notably talented musician. I have a friend who suffers from an addiction and the most fascinating takeaway from studying him is that his personality didn’t disappear when he went sober. Instead, he latched onto a healthy passion, resulting in an arguably unhealthy obsession with something that at least wasn’t destroying his body.
Ahmed’s character is shown to be a drummer who doesn’t want his hearing impairment to stifle his girlfriend’s artistic career, but he doesn’t actually appear to be intoxicated by the act of drumming. We don’t see him mastering triplets on his double-bass drum while cooking breakfast in his camper van or trying to perfect a blast beat. Musicians always talk about how WHIPLASH is an inaccurate depiction of what jazz drumming looks and feels like, but I actually think that Miles Teller’s perfectionism is a more accurate portrayal of what Riz Ahmed’s playing should look, sound, and feel like in SOUND OF METAL. That said, Ahmed is absolutely breathtaking in the title role when he isn’t behind a kit: the scene of him speaking with his AA sponsor over the phone is the single best dramatic performance I’ve seen so far this year. Just stunning work.
If the bleach blonde hair and tattoos didn’t give it away, Derek Cianfrance has a story credit here, and I’d be very curious to hear about how this all came about. Did Cianfrance dream this film up? Did he initially intend to direct it? Could he not find financing? Did he lose interest in the concept? Or was he just consulted with later? Whatever the case, the whole film screams of his style. The heartache, the doomed, star-crossed lovers, the financial hardship: it’s all there. On a script basis, it really is up to snuff with Cianfrance’s other films, albeit not quite as structurally complex as THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, which director Darius Marder wrote. Primarily holding back SOUND OF METAL is that it does kind of suffer from “screenwriter trying his hand at directing” syndrome. Here’s the rub: aesthetically speaking, SOUND OF METAL is very reminiscent of Cianfrance’s films, and while this is cinematographer Daniël Bouquet’s first swing at an American production, he does an admirable job at recapturing that same naturalist, swampy Americana of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. While the gaffing work is beautiful, and very similar to Cianfrance’s signature, the camera operating and compositional proficiency is a far cry from Sean Bobbitt’s masterful eye. As well-lit this film may be, too many scenes are shot in indecisive handheld, a quality not too surprising when considering Bouquet’s resume of European art-house films, and even more obvious when considering that Marder probably isn’t a particularly decisive visual stylist.
The concert scenes are the worst offenders, boasting a cheap Steadocam music video look, lazily and aimlessly floating left and right in order to reap the benefits of a stage light’s lens flare. The film looks its best when just reaping the benefits of its natural surroundings, filming wide compositions of motel parking lots, tactile static frames, and humble dialogue scenes. Still, it’s missing a bolder visual cue; some kind of camera stylo that makes it more than a fantastic performance piece. And look, this is not a big deal, because the film is still deeply affecting and beautiful thanks to its stellar performances, but this lack of audiovisual precision does hold the film back insofar as not feeling like an auteurist work. It’s got countless great moments, but they’re all dramaturgical. It’s just missing that image you can never get out of your head.
Cianfrance would have directed the hell out of this. Marder does a fantastic job with his actors and that’s ultimately what matters most, but it’s missing that final flourish that takes it over the edge. The sound design is fantastic, cutting from subjective to objective audio; it’s incredible how well the film captures the crippling defeat experienced by an adult going through hearing loss, and the frustrations of cochlear implants, but while the sound design is technically proficient, it isn’t actually a novel concept. Let’s not fool ourselves, this is exactly how every filmmaker would tell this story. What I wish Darius Marder would have done would have been to go the extra mile to try something even more brash and bold. Think of how Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s THE TRIBE operates as a deaf-mute drama without subtitles. I don’t necessarily expect a mainstream indie to do something quite that experimental for its entire running time, but it would certainly have made for a great sequence: a lasting image, sound, or lack thereof, to remember the whole film by.