Jewish ‘Sound of Metal’ writer-director rides unconventional streak to 6 Oscar nominations

Courtesy: Darius Marder’s Twitter

BY DAN BUFFA, SPECIAL FOR THE JEWISH LIGHT

Darius Marder once referred to his family history like someone would describe the plot of a thriller; it’s anything but conventional.

“I come from a family of Jews who escaped from Austria,” the chef-turned-filmmaker noted 12 years ago, when talking about his award-winning film (his first), “Loot.” Marder finds himself back in the awards season frenzy with “Sound of Metal,” a story about a heavy metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) who experiences rapid hearing loss, and finds his entire life turned upside down, seeking refuge in a deaf community.

Marder experienced that world-turning sensation himself over a decade ago, but didn’t need his ears to inform him it was time to start moving. The heart shaped that decision. A desire to tell stories sounded better than cooking and delivering food to people, and he made that plunge. “Loot” was the result, and his second feature, 11 years later, swings another unique stick through Hollywood’s most coveted section: dramas that pack a punch. 

“Sound of Metal” is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Marder’s screenplay, acting slots for Riz Ahmed and Paul Raci, as well as Best Picture. He penned the script with his brother, Abraham, from a story he composed with friend and fellow filmmaker, Derek Cianfrance. Marder and Cianfrance (along with Ben Coccio) collaborated on the Ryan Gosling-Bradley Cooper drama, “A Place Beyond the Pines,” but find themselves in much different waters with “Metal,” a journey that doesn’t wish to portray to the deaf community as victimhood. The Marders wanted to explore the gray area between finding out you are deaf and learning how to improve yourself as a result. Paul Raci’s (who is a deaf former musician in real life) counselor makes the audacious attempt to convince Ahmed’s Ruben that he isn’t a victim due to his sudden circumstance. 

Instead of beating us over the head with “deaf is unfortunate,” Marder showed us how it is a form of rebirth for Ahmed’s lost soul, like restarting an engine on a car. You reformat it, prepare it for a new way of living, and watch that transformation take place. Seeing Ruben and his girlfriend and lead singer of the band, Lou (played beautifully by Olivia Cooke) shake up their closed off lives makes for one of the film’s many pleasures. They travel the world in an RV, playing gigs and waking up somewhere different every day. Marder channeled the everyday sounds that bind us to our lives, such as a coffee pot brewing or the mere sounds of the wind tearing through a rest stop. Instead of zeroing in on what is lost in hearing, the filmmaker pinpointed the new strengths one can rely on. 

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Marder’s own struggles in his life, career wise especially, mirror Ruben’s problems in adapting to his new life. It can get ugly when you race into the end of your 30’s and wonder if there is another chapter after this one, and will it be more interesting than this one? A lot of the rich nature in “Sound of Metal” revolves around the quiet transitions Ruben makes in his new life. How he can find the allure of drumming by gently tapping on a slide at a park-or turn a paint bucket over and lead a room of fellow searchers on a musical journey. More than anything, he found patience. 

It’s impatience with life’s GPS that led Marder to Ruben, and another path to awards season, a place that should reveal the best sound design ever put together on film. If there is one thing “Sound of Metal” does brilliantly, it’s the manner in which a viewer hears the film. Forget about words. I am talking about decibels ringing off the drums being played, or the echo in metal from one ear to another.

The way Marder turns the background volume up without altering the actor’s words and movements is superlative. You sit in Ruben’s shoes so often. More so, it’s what we hear and what we don’t, something that powers up heavily in the film’s closing scene. 

Marder’s closing scene hasn’t been drawn up yet, but he carries family history that could 2-3 more films or documentaries. His great grandfather, Moishe, grew up in an orthodox Jewish community, but went against the grain as soon as he could. The man figured out he was an atheist after he smoked a cigarette, and wasn’t struck down. According to Darius, he also helped his family survive on any means necessary. I would be surprised if he allowed these tales to remain non-fiction. 

With “Sound of Metal” owning one of the best Rotten Tomatoes scores of 2019 and sure to take the Oscar for it’s innovative sound design, Marder can do pretty much whatever he wants next. He’s the new Damien Chazelle, who turned heads with “Whiplash.” Both films are why we love independent film. You can instantly tell why these storytellers needed to tell these stories. 

Darius Marder has plenty. Stick around, ladies and gentlemen. I hear an Austrian Jewish train plowing into Hollywood. 

“Sound of Metal” can currently be found on Amazon Prime Video.