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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.