Just when you thought it was safe to get back behind a drumkit… Six years after Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough Whiplash, Darius Marder attempts a similar assault on the American indie cinema scene with Sound of Metal, also about a troubled drummer dealing with the repercussions (pun thoroughly not intended) of his relentless dedication to music. A portrait of a tortured soul seeking solace, Marder’s film is considerably smarter, more empathetic and more incisive than Chazelle’s, though it too is plagued by a cripplingly narrow purview.

A brown-skinned American metal drummer named “Ruben” is a peculiarly perfect name for the lead character; too often characters’ names sound clichéd or inauthentic. Riz Ahmed’s Ruben is one half of a duo both romantic and professional – he plays drums and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) sings and plays guitar. But midway through one tour, his hearing suddenly and rapidly deteriorates, and Ruben must face a life without his hearing—and his source of income and his passion. Worse, when Lou convinces the recovering addict to join a residential sobriety camp for deaf persons, Ruben must face life without his companion.

Marder is a sensitive director, and along with his brother Abraham, who co-wrote the script, has crafted an equally sensitive film. There are no easy solutions to the problems his scenario raises, no swift and simple routes toward a meaningful recovery, no ways to reclaim what’s gone for good. Sound of Metal is a chronicle of hardship, though one that sources lightness and hope in that very hardship. Lou, Ruben and his compatriots in recovery discover the profundity of peace and joy in a way of life not shorn of their travails but accepting them. Resist reality, fight the unwinnable fight and the only damage you’ll do will be to yourself and to others. By the film’s plaintive yet quietly optimistic conclusion, Ruben has learnt his lesson the hardest way – he’s only able to fully relinquish his harmful dependencies once they’ve relieved him of all clear paths to genuine happiness.

If there’s a piercing candor to the scenario, it also bears significant signs of schematism. Much as Ruben’s circumstances shore him up roughly where you’d expect they would, there’s a pat inevitability to this narrative progression. Ruben wades through conflict too comfortably – Ahmed’s nuanced performance shoulders the full burden of expressing his pain, as the story simply trundles through the necessary steps en route to a safely open-ended close. Uncertain endings ought to bear a sense of dramatic frisson, a certain frustration, yet Sound of Metal wraps all its narrative and emotional strands up so neatly that even its indecisive final scene has a strange certainty, communicating a sense of finality that feels inappropriate. Furthermore, this predictable march toward a predictable conclusion renders all the indications of hope in the film’s second act largely perfunctory – they exist not for the simple, honest, fulfilling sake of existing but to serve only as hopes to be dashed, promises to be broken.

When emotional complexities are clad in such overly felicitous narrative designs, their impact may be felt upon first experience but, at the slightest interrogation, they appear crass and manipulative. They also yield casualties within that narrative – Sound of Metal crafts believable characters and its cast inhabits them with naturalistic grace and compassion. But in the end, they’re really only there to fulfil plot purposes, to satisfy Ruben’s development. Lou comes off worst, going from a richly-drawn key supporting player to a mere obstacle toward Ruben’s happiness. Cooke is subtle and superb in her too-brief screen time, yet her portrayal can’t entirely mask the mild sexism in the writing. It’s not for nothing that the film is reminiscent of Derek Cianfrance’s films and their shallow depictions of feeble male ennui – the writer and director of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines has a story credit here.

Yet all those who’ve committed themselves to telling this flawed story do so with utmost earnestness, and there are several memorable, emotionally astute moments throughout, particularly in a moving middle act. Ahmed and Cooke give arguably their finest performances to date, though it’s the remarkable Paul Raci, one of the world’s leading deaf actors, who delivers the film’s standout turn as Joe, the director of the sobriety camp. With such talented actors turning in such touching performances, it’s almost impossible not to surrender to Sound of Metal’s emotive gestures, as manipulative as they may be. This is only Darius Marder’s first non-documentary feature, only his second film credit to date, his first in over a decade. With a little more care in narrative construction, that same touch he brings to writing dialogue and directing actors, he could develop into one of the finest American filmmakers of his generation.

Undeniably moving and narratively problematic, this could be a breakout for its fledgling director, but the cast deserves most of the credit.
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