Sound of Metal: Readjusting to Life

The name of the game for the past year or so has been Adapt. As a society we’ve struggled with and still to this day we continue to learn the correct way of functioning amidst a global pandemic. Our habits have undergone drastic changes due to measures implemented to stop the spread of the virus. School is attended online, gyms are closed, restaurants are open only for take-out delivery, and so on. Today, we consider ourselves lucky if we’ve managed to go out for a walk without stumbling into anyone. We actually look forward to walking our dog, or leaving the house for a doctor’s appointment. In a way, we have collectively responded and readjusted to a new reality, where social distancing, masks and hand sanitizers have become our best friends. Why do I mention this?
Because today I want to talk about one of my favorite movies from last year; a movie that is, in fact, about responding to an emergency and the difficulty in readjusting yourself to a new way of life. That movie is Sound of Metal by Darius Marder.

Ruben’s life takes a dramatic turn when he loses his hearing.

The tragic story of a heavy-metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) losing his hearing is one of extreme subtlety and unflinching character considering how high the stakes are for our protagonist. Ruben, played by Ahmed in a virtuoso performance, is in many ways similar to a lot of us. He’s proud, determined and sometimes plain dumb. When the sound in his ears pops for the first time, replaced by a consistent dull buzz, he prefers to lie to himself than face the consequences. The idea that this buzz will eventually fade away is one that he holds onto in the movie’s opening minutes. After all, life’s been good to him: despite his heroin addiction that he’s managed to overcome along with his girlfriend, Lou, he’s got it made: he gets to have his own band, play the drums and tour the country on his own terms, in his own RV. He gets to wake up early every morning, prepare a healthy breakfast, listen to 50s music, and dance with the love of his life. Nobody and nothing, it seems, can take this away from him.
Marder, the film’s director, skillfully captures the details of this perfect life by highlighting the omni-present sounds in Ruben’s everyday routine: the rhythmic grinding of the smoothie mixer, the crackling of eggs in a frying pan, the soothing and soft background noise produced by Ruben’s record player. By emphasizing the richness of such tiny details, Marder offers us a glimpse into our protagonist’s post-rehab world. These tiny details, whether we like it or not, are what make Ruben’s life so special, so damn precious.

At the dinner table, Ruben is confronted with a new reality of people communicating in ASL.

And yet, at the same time, these details are also the most tragic aspect of the overwhelming loss that Ruben experiences once he full realizes the gravity of the situation. Denial is no longer an option. The world around him has become one continuous, indistinct buzz.
Sound of Metal, however, refuses to capitalize on and settle for misery. Instead of letting Ruben free-fall back into drug addiction and deep depression, something that most movies about human tragedy love to do, it pushes him down a path that is meant to lead him back to life. With the introduction of Joe, the head of a Deaf community in Missouri, the film once again establishes the running theme of life instead of misery. Joe (played by a heartbreaking Paul Raci), a recovering Deaf Vietnam vet and eventually Ruben’s counselor, stands for life. His fragile, worn out features and tired eyes emanate a sense of calm in the face of tragedy. Pointing to his forehead he says, ”We’re looking for a solution to this…”, and with both fingers signaling his ears, he adds, ”…not this.”
The community to which Ruben is invited to is a community of people affected by the same pain who, through collective effort, have learned to re-create a new reality for themselves.

Joe – Ruben’s counselor in the Deaf community.

Ruben, like a lot of us, is determined to change everything around him and persevere. The loss of hearing, he quickly concludes, cannot stop him, his dreams, his passions, his life with Lou. Those things must go on. The show won’t stop. The thought of implants crosses his mind.
Again, like a lot of us, he wants the quick fix. Like an addict, he impatiently awaits for the moment of relief. This obstacle that prevents him from getting back to his old reality is, at first glance, a simple technicality that can be bypassed with the help of something as routinely as surgery.
Joe notices Ruben’s restlessness, and with the stern yet worried look of a loving father, he gives him a task to complete each morning: he is to get up early, walk upstairs to the house’s loft, and simply… sit. Sit still and absorb the silence that persistently envelops him and his mind. And whatever prevents him from sitting still, he is to write down in a notepad.
At first, this may seem to Ruben, and us – the viewers – a little preposterous. But soon, this seemingly preposterous activity reveals what Sound of Metal is all about: finding that moment of utter stillness, accepting silence, is the hardest thing one can do. It is also the most honest one, because accepting silence, like Joe did years and years ago, having returned from the war and replaced loved ones with alcohol, is sometimes the only cure to the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive.

In the presence of children, everything is possible.

What Sound of Metal captures brilliantly is our tendency to twist and turn, shove and push when things go sour; our innate tendency in not realizing that the answer is sometimes right in front of us for the taking. Marder, the director, places us alongside Ruben deep into the heart of a tight-knit community bound by what we might consider a handicap, but what they consider a second chance at life. The world this community operates in features concerts, school trips, dinner parties and work opportunities, just like the world outside of it. And I think it’s safe to say that most of the time we are just like Ruben: we think that change takes place around us, when in fact, what he soon learns from Joe, the most beautiful thing in the world is to sit still in silence, because then you’ll know: you’ve done everything you could. You’ve learned your lesson. You’re alive.

Life doesn’t sound the same anymore.

I will not go into more details, as I do not wish to spoil such a magnificently crafted drama. I do, however, want to emphasize the level of maturity the film displays when dealing with such vast themes as regret, addiction and moving on. A lot of things go unsaid, but Marder knows when to linger with the camera a bit longer than usual in order to capture the dramatic beats of the story. Riz Ahmed’s eyes, so big and bright, communicate Ruben’s sense of being lost at sea, while Paul Raci’s emanate a fragile sense of calm and understanding.
And then there is Lou (the wonderful Olivia Cooke), Ruben’s band leader, girlfriend and life-safer. As Ruben puts it, she is his ”fucking heart.” Lou is a character so universal yet so intimate and well-crafted that there is no way this movie exists without her. She represents everything that was good and felt right in Ruben’s life – she is the one who stood by him in moments of crisis and the one who spurs him to commit to Joe’s community. She is the beginning and end to Ruben’s story. She is also, ultimately, a tragic reminder that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, step into the same water twice.

You’re my fucking heart, Lou.

Sniff Sniff

Today’s topic: sex addiction in film. A hard subject, difficult to get by certain audiences. A subject you want to look away from as soon as possible. Often visually disgusting, sickly portrayed, yet it’s an important subject matter that perhaps only cinema can deal with in a morbid way. For me, the best film about any addiction and in fact one of the best films ever made is Steve McQueen’s second feature, Shame. 

Steve McQueen, the British filmmaker behind Hunger (2008) and the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2013, 12 Years a Slave, directed the gut wrenching Shame without holding any punches. Quite the opposite, he delivers them with brute force and somehow manages to leave us with bruised hearts, not flesh. Shame tells the simple day-to-day story of New Yorker Brandon (Fassbender, phenomenal) who lives an ordinary life by day but once night sets in, he reveals his true self: a sex addict. Brandon works as a businessman, rides the subway everyday and is the owner of a spacious apartment in the city. His story is the story of every man and woman who feel pain every time they wake up. It’s the story of people not able to look each other straight in the eye. It’s the story of loneliness crawling into our disconnected society. It’s the sizzling truth.

He needs this.
He needs this.

Sex addiction like any other kind of addiction, consumes the addict. It devours him and his whole life. It not only damages the person’s condition but the feelings too. In fact, Brandon has a sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who after a long time of silence storms into his life and turns everything upside down. In the mornings Brandon wakes up, urinates, has a healthy breakfast and goes to work. By night, he chases skirts; sometimes he takes a girl on a quick date, sometimes he pays. With Brandon it’s always classy – a nice restaurant, a luxurious hotel room and then all the problems are solved. Sometimes it can be rough, like on the side of the road, but Brandon is always the true gentleman who walks the girl home or accompanies her to the subway. He’s never had a long lasting relationship. Why? It’s too much for him, what’s the point of waking up to the same face for the rest of your life? What’s the point of coming home to the same smell? What’s the point of making love to the same body? It slows you down, it makes you lose focus, lose your condition, your habits, your dreams. That’s why when Brandon feels lonely, he hooks up with a girl who knows his needs over the internet. She knows what he likes, she knows his favorite position, his favorite style, she knows he likes to take it slowly. Slowly it is. But then Sissy comes into the picture.

Brother and sister: enemies or allies?
Brother and sister: enemies or allies?

Sissy is the fresh breeze. She’s  the upcoming change. She’s the wind that rocks the trees. She rocks Brandon’s lifestyle. She’s the wake up call. She checks his laptop, uses his shower, has sex with his boss, takes up his time, constantly fights him and steals from him. She’s the lost sense of self respect that yells from the depths of loneliness: ” Remember me?! Please, do remember me! I’m here!”. That’s when Brandon starts to realize. Addiction turns into pain and awkwardness. He meets a beautiful girl; smart, funny, big eyes, subtle movements; she’s the one. He rents a room with a beautiful view of New York’s harbour. And that’s when it hits him. He can’t do it. He can’t “make love” this time. Why? Because this time it would really mean making love. Making love to someone who matters to you, making love to someone  who either you can attract or scare away. It’s either gain or lose everything. Brandon shakes his head, and tries to do it, but he just can’t. It won’t connect. He’s helpless. It’s a defeat for a man who’s learned to ignore feelings. It’s a defeat for a man who’s only really good at sex. He pounds his fists in frustration and anger against the glass window. The girl leaves. He’s a prisoner who won’t accept his fate. He’s a soldier fighting a never ending war. The addiction sucks the juice out of him. The addiction’s winning.

Looking for answers in the dark corners of New York.
Looking for answers in the dark corners of New York.

Brandon goes jogging. Watch out for that sequence of him running across the busy streets of New York: you’ll learn more about the human condition and sense of existence from that tracking shot alone than from most of the movies that come out today. It’s a run of desperation, it’ a run in search of guidance. He runs and runs, and nothing can stop him. What can stop him is the answer he’s looking for. Not there yet. Brandon walks the streets at night, this time not on the hunt for a woman but a man. He kisses a stranger. The kiss of desperation. Desperation again. What will stop me? What will stop this everlasting thirst? What will it take to put me down on my knees?

His sister’s suicide attempt, that’s the answer. Only when Sissy slices her wrists in Brandon’s bathroom, does he realize that there is, in fact, a true meaning to life itself. Addiction doesn’t fulfill you, it doesn’t satisfy, it doesn’t shape you as a human being. It all depends from Brandon, the way he deals with his sister, the way he deals with love, the way he deals with his forgotten feelings. The feelings he once had as a boy. The passions he had when he carried a lunchbox to school. The dreams he had when he sat in the theater on opening night. It all comes back to him when his estranged sister’s on the edge of dying. She’s all he has.

And now, he’s awake. He can run.

The last run.
The last run.