Sound of Metal
In Sound of Metal, a tale of sound, fury, and self-discovery, Riz Ahmed delivers an intensely committed performance as the volatile Ruben, who has found new purpose as a drummer in a noise-metal duo, playing blistering live shows with his singer girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). When Ruben suddenly loses much of his hearing, he is launched on a profound odyssey—through denial, anger, grief, and, gradually, acceptance—as he comes to understand what it means to live as a deaf person and to discover deafness as not a disability but a rich culture and community. Through stunningly immersive, Academy Award–winning sound design, director Darius Marder invites us to experience the world as Ruben does, capturing a sonic spectrum in which silence comes in a thousand shades.
Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal receives a 4K UHD edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a triple-layer disc. The 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode has been sourced from a 4K master supplied by Amazon Studios and is presented here with HDR10. The release also includes a dual-layer Blu-ray disc that features a standard 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation for the film alongside the release’s special features.
Much to my surprise Marder shot Sound of Metal on 35mm film and because of that you get a nice film texture here, one that is much stronger than what Amazon’s stream for the film offers. Film grain is rendered wonderfully, looking absolutely sharp and crisp without ever looking noisy or blocky. Details are very distinct and pop nicely, the stubble on the film’s protagonist’s face even looking lifelike.
As solid as the base presentation is it’s the application of HDR that ends up giving things the push it needs. Shadows look better here in comparison to the Blu-ray’s presentation, where the shadows can be slightly murkier. Blacks come out looking a bit richer and deeper while the gradients moving into the light are cleaner, pushing out a little more detail in the process. The film can look a bit “darker” in comparison to the Blu-ray presentation, but I felt the colours here managed to show more vibrancy in a few sequences (where the palette allows). HDR is also nicely used to enhance the highlights in the film’s darker concert sequences, from the light bouncing off Riz Ahmed’s character to it going through his bleached hair. It’s very striking.
To my surprise there are some slight imperfections in the film elements: it looks like dirt did get on the negative before it was scanned and edited, and there are a couple of sequences where a very noticeable stippling-like effect pops up, flecks appearing here and there. Clearly not a big deal by any means, it’s just always surprising when stuff like that pops up for a newer film. It’s a sharp looking presentation otherwise, one that I would say noticeably bests the Amazon stream.
The film’s audio track is presented here in DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. As they discuss in an interview included with this release director Darius Marder and sound designer Nicolas Becker aimed to throw the audience right in to the middle of things so they could go through the same experience as the film’s protagonist as he loses his hearing. Things start out loud with a concert sequence and that’s all mixed as expected: the guitar and the lead singer’s voice echoing through the channels, the drums crashing loudly, the lower frequency effortlessly working in that bass. But—proving what Marder says in the interview about more sound not necessarily meaning good sound—the mix becomes more impressive once the film’s central character, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), begins to lose his hearing. As he first begins to lose it the audio drops substantially and then it sounds as though the lower frequency is receiving the focus with voices and other sounds being reamed through and muddled. You can still make out what dialogue is there (for the most part) and other sound effects but it’s almost like you’re picking up the vibrations of the sounds rather than anything truly audible. We can also pick up the low rumbles as Ruben tries to clear his sinuses or smack his ears during his futile attempts in restoring his hearing, and other effects of this sort come up periodically throughout the film.
Past this initial stage the soundtrack can be incredibly quiet but then certain sounds, usually in nature, will receive a sharp, enhanced focus, whether it be the wind blowing through grass or birds chirping in the distance. Even simple gestures or other movements (including an arm moving) sound to be enhanced and exaggerated, and the dinner scenes even come off noisier than one would expect (it’s mentioned in one of the included interviews that this was done intentionally).
It's possible what follows is a SPOILER (you have been warned) but in the film’s third act the film’s audio then goes into an entirely different direction. Once Ruben receives his cochlear implants we then “hear” what he’s hearing, and the audio (intentionally) turns into a digitized mess when heard from Ruben’s perspective. Becker has his own way in describing the audio during these portions, but it essentially sounds like the audio has been shredded and those pieces are being fed back. It’s unpleasant and distorted, but it has been mixed appropriately through the channels and it makes the final moments in the film that much more impactful. It’s an effective and striking mix that just sounds wonderful here.
Update: I initially missed that subtitles found on the Amazon stream translating some of the sign language featured in the film are missing when the subtitles are "Off" but are available when the HOH English subtitles are turned on. Forgetting that they were present on the Amazon presentation I initially figured this was intentional with the disc, with one scene (around the tattoo design) being a little funnier without them. I'm not sure if this is a mistake on Criterion's part or is the wish of the director (maybe he didn't want them and Amazon forced them on him?), but the fact the translations are present in the optional subtitles pushes me towards it being a mistake.
There is also a French soundtrack available. Outside of getting to hear Mathieu Amalric speak French there is nothing special about the track and I suspect it has only been included for the French Canadian market (though there are also no French subtitles that I can see).
All of the film’s special features are found on the standard Blu-ray, with no features included on the 4K disc.
Criterion throws in a couple of interesting supplements but for a film that received many accolades, nominations and awards it all feels especially anemic. First off Criterion has recorded a new conversation between director/writer Darius Marder and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, the two talking about the film’s origins and eventual production for roughly 29-minutes. It covers the ground you may expect, going over technical aspects that include how actor Riz Ahmed dawned special earpieces that would cancel out sound and/or shoot through white noise, or how the film was shot mostly in chronological order. What ended up most fascinating about the discussion ended up being around how the film started out as something entirely different on Cianfrance’s ends. Cianfrance had started shooting a film called Metalhead with a premise very similar to Sound of Metal, the story featuring a drummer in a metal group coming to grips with losing his hearing. While the details around the story aren’t fleshed out all that much, where it clearly differed is in Cianfrance’s intended execution: the film would be a documentary-fiction hybrid where he would have members of the group Jucifer, real-life married couple Gazelle Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood, playing the central couple with Livengood losing his hearing (in real life the drummer does wear ear plugs). It sounds as though this production got far in production but shut down when Valentine and Livengood were uncomfortable with where the story was going. From here Marder picked things up and took the story in another direction (throwing in the elements around addiction) while Cianfrance, Valentine and Livengood served as consultants. It’s all rather fascinating but disappointingly there isn’t much else around this alternate version, not even clips or anything of that nature. Excerpts from that film feels like an obvious inclusion as an extra, though it’s possible Cianfrance or the two band members aren’t interested in it being shown in public.
Criterion then includes another new program, this time a 25-minute one around the film’s award-winning sound design featuring interviews with Marder and sound designer Nicolas Becker. Becker explains how some of the “enhanced” sound effects were captured (and it’s clear Ahmed put up with a lot while making this film) with the most interesting discussion being around how Becker created the sound effects to simulate the cochlear implants, where things become significantly “digitized,” for lack of a better term. This involved new software that allowed him to take the audio and essentially pull it apart into three different pieces, reconstructing it in a way where everything was technically still there but just not right (he has a rather amusing analogy for this, too). Another interesting little tidbit: the film’s sound was mixed at Carlos Reygadas’ home in the hills of Mexico, the quiet setting working to allow for a sort of “sonic meditation.”
The music video for “Green,” written and performed by Marder’s brother Abraham, is also included with an introduction by the director. As he points out, the video is made up of raw unused footage from the film, complete with rounded corners. Criterion also includes a 14-minute behind-the-scenes featurette produced by Amazon. It’s about what you would expect and pretty much summarizes the other features, but it does also feature interviews with actors Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, and Paul Raci, with excerpts from the latter’s screen tests also appearing. The disc then closes with the film’s trailer. The included insert features a short essay on the film by Roxana Hadadi, who also goes over the film’s interesting production background briefly.
I appreciated the two new features though still can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed because it does all feel a little rushed. I’m surprised by the lack of a commentary and the fact there are no new interviews with the cast (one with Raci would have been great), or anything about that alternate film.
A terrific soundtrack and a solid 4K presentation (nicely enhanced by HDR) make this an easy recommendation, but the supplements feel disappointingly slim.