Sound of Metal (4K UHD)

Director: Darius Marder
Screenplay: Darius Marder & Abraham Marder (story by Darius Marder & Derek Cianfrance)
Stars: Riz Ahmed (Ruben Stone), Olivia Cooke (Lou), Paul Raci (Joe), Lauren Ridloff (Diane), Mathieu Amalric (Richard Berger), Domenico Toledo (Michael), Chelsea Lee (Jenn), Shaheem Sanchez (Shaheem), Chris Perfetti (Harlan), Bill Thorpe (The Man), Michael Tow (Pharmacist)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S.
Sound of Metal
Sound of Metal

The title of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal initially and most obviously alludes to the music played the protagonist, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), the drummer of a punk-metal noise band. In the film’s hypnotic opening sequence, we watch in close-up as the shirtless, tattooed, and peroxided Ruben, bounded by the darkness of the stage, pounds away on the drums while his girlfriend/bandmate wails away at shrieking vocals matched by shredding guitar chords, creating an enveloping barrage of sonic overload that Ruben relishes with fierce determination. The brutal irony, of course, is that the very world he inhabits and cherishes—the world of aural overload—will soon slip away from him as the perpetual pounding on his eardrums leads to progressive hearing loss, effectively robbing him of both his livelihood and his sense of self.

The majority of the film, which director Marder co-wrote with his brother Abraham Marder from a story originally concocted by filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), resides in the slippery, frustrating, but potentially liberating space where Ruben can develop and embrace a new sense of self, one that no longer relies on his ability to hear the world around him. He resists, of course, as he immediately views his loss of hearing as a handicap to be overcome via costly cochlear implants that he can’t afford. Ruben is clearly shaken by this turn of life events, but he remains outwardly placid and determined to solve the problem even though he is clearly ill-equipped to deal with it. A recovering heroin addict who has been clean for four years, Ruben is always in danger of sliding back into the abyss, which is why Lou convinces him to take up residence at a rural rehab community for deaf persons recovering from addiction. The community is run by Vietnam veteran named Joe (Paul Raci) who lost his hearing in the war and has since committed himself to a life of stillness and peace, where not being able to hear is not a handicap, but rather a way of life that opens up new possibilities for experience and connection with others. Again, Ruben is resistant, reluctant to lean fully into his new reality.

But, as the film’s drama slowly unfolds, Ruben begins to find his place, mastering American Sign Language, working with kids in the community, learning what it is to live in a way he hadn’t planned for or expected. Joe is kind and gentle, but also resolute in his convictions about how his community works and what is expected of Ruben, which leads to conflict at various points. The steadiness with which Joe lives and mentors has an echo in Ruben and Lou’s life together, where the travelled in a beat-up RV, sharing vegan shakes for breakfast and dancing to slow R&B. The ferocity of their stage performances is always left on the stage, but it is hard not to sense that Ruben needs (or feels he needs) it to combat his own tendencies toward self-destruction. The specter of addiction hangs heavy over everything, although that addiction has shifted from heroin, to music, to the desire to hear again.

Riz Ahmed, who prior to this film had played mostly supporting roles in a wide variety of films, including Nightcrawler (2014), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), and Venom (2018), makes Ruben a compelling protagonist, one who is tightly coiled and vulnerable. He can be bullish and obstinate, but Ahmed also brings out Ruben’s gentle nature, which lives in precarious balance with his addictive tendencies. The narrative constantly dangles the possibility of self-destruction, which gives the film a tense edge even when nothing much seems to be happening. The third act turns on Ruben’s decision to sell all of his belongings to fund the implants, which restore his hearing, but not in the way he expected. A reunion with Lou also does not go as planned, sending Ruben out into a world he barely knows and yet one with which he may finally be at peace.

As a drama about hearing loss, Sound of Metal is compelling without being didactic. It is rich in subtlety and nuance, when it could have been overbearing and melodramatic. It has “big” moments, but they feel real and lived-in, rather than constructed and performed (at times, it almost feels like you are watching a documentary). A major part of the film’s effectiveness is its sound design, which won a richly deserved Oscar (an award that all too often goes to the loudest, most bombastic summer blockbuster). The soundtrack takes the viewer deep into Ruben’s experience, especially when he is first losing his hearing and the world becomes echoey and distant, producing a sense of being stranded in a strange, liminal world. Similarly, when his hearing is restored, it has a metallic, artificial cadence that feels alien and distracting—a far cry from the world of stillness in the silence that Joe has preached. By the end, the title Sound of Metal has taken on a whole new meaning, as Ruben is poised to embrace a life that he had previously resisted out of adherence to convention, finally liberated by a self-determination rooted in his own experience, rather than what the world tells him.

Sound of Metal Criterion Collection 4K UHD + Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.39:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video conversation between director Darius Marder and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance
  • Video program about the film’s sound, featuring Marder and sound editor Nicolas Becker
  • Music video for Abraham Marder’s song “Green,” featuring outtakes from the film and a new introduction by Darius Marder
  • Featurette
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Roxana Hadadi
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 27, 2022

    Criterion’s 4K UHD presentation of Sound of Metal comes from a digital scan of the original 35mm camera negatives. The 2160p /HDR image, which was supervised by director Darius Marder and cinematographer Daniël Bouquet, is overall very impressive in its naturalism. Sound of Music is not an intensely visual film, as much of it unfolds in rather banal locations with unfussy camerawork, but the heightened resolution and dynamic color range give it a strong impression of realism and filmic texture that work well with the story. The original 5.1-channel soundtrack was remastered from the digital master audio files and is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio (there is also an optional French-dubbed track). The soundtrack is, not surprisingly, extremely impressive, with an incredibly immersive soundstage that really brings you into Ruben’s auditory experience.

    The supplements aren’t particularly heavy, but they offer some significant context and understanding of how the film came to be. There is a half-hour video conversation between Darius Marder and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, who discuss at length the writing and production process and how the film originated with Cianfrance as something quite different before Marder took it over and made it his own. Marder does most of the talking, and he is eloquent and insightful in discussing his artistic choices. There is also a 15-minute promotional behind-the-scenes featurette created by Amazon Studios that includes interviews with Marder, sound designer Nicolas Becker, and actors Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci, and Olivia Cooke. Becker and Marder are also featured in a 25-minute featurette that focuses entirely on the film’s Oscar-winning sound design. We also get a 5-minute music video created by Darius Marder for his brother Abraham Marder’s song “Green” (which plays over the closing credits) that is composed of outtakes from the film with an introduction by the director. Finally, there is a trailer and an essay by Vulture TV critic Roxana Hadadi.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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