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.
The Criterion Collection presents Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a 4K master supplied to Criterion by Amazon Studios. For this article I am referencing the Blu-ray disc that was included with the 4K UHD edition. Though the standalone Blu-ray edition obviously lacks the 4K disc the releases are the same in every other area.
To my surprise Sound of Metal was shot on 35mm film, not in digital, and that is reflected well through this high-def presentation. Though I would say there can be some minor, noticeable noise in the shadows here and there the encode is clean otherwise, the image retaining a nice film look at its best with the grain looking mostly natural. In turn details are rendered sharply and the image never looks fuzzy. Colours are strong and black levels are deep, though the shadows can look a little mushy in a handful of shots, the UHD’s presentation handling this aspect a bit better.
It looks as though some dirt may have found its way onto the negative before being scanned, showing up as tiny white flecks in here and there, heavier during a handful of sequences. Clearly not a big deal but I still found it to be a bit of a surprise and thought it was worth mentioning. Outside of that there are no noticeable issues with the source materials. In all it’s a good presentation that delivers a slightly stronger film-like look in comparison to what is streaming on Amazon (or at least compared to how that stream looks for me).
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).
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.
Nice A/V presentation but the supplements leave one wanting.