Sound of Metal (2020)

Many great movies are based on a question.  Sound of Metal asks two: would you be able to adapt to a major life-altering change to your body?  Also, if you could get back what you lost, would you do it?  The movie is the story of a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing.  He is given the opportunity to learn how to function as a deaf person, but he can’t let go of his former life.  Riz Ahmed is excellent as Ruben, the drummer who is forced to learn how to live his life completely differently than before, but cannot let go of his former life.  Highly recommended!

As human beings, we gradually become aware of time robbing us of our physical well-being.  The changes to our bodies are subtle, almost imperceptible, but they are definitely there.  Simple things, like bending to reach something on the floor, climbing a flight of stairs, or running, take a bit more effort than they used to.  We may be the same person, but we’re not as strong, as handsome, as healthy as we used to be.  Joints pop and crack, ligaments aren’t as loose as they used to be, or memory isn’t as sharp as we thought it was.  Fortunately, most of us have time to recognize, accept and adapt to these changes.  But what if a substantial, serious change came to us suddenly, out of nowhere?  How would we handle it?  Sound of Metal asks that fundamental question, and also another intriguing one: what if we could change back to the way we were before?  Would we do it?

Sound of Metal is the story of Ruben (a pumped Riz Ahmed, in a career-defining role), a drummer in a band made up of himself and his girlfriend Lou (a frosty browed Olivia Cooke).  I’m not savvy with the metal genre of rock (I’m partial to Megadeth), but the music they play was what I would imagine the White Stripes would sound like if they were influenced by Metallica and New York performance art.  The music is loud, Ruben’s drumming is ferocious, and all seems to be going well for the two of them on tour.

As a recovering addict, Ruben needs a physical outlet for his energy.  Drumming provides an escape valve, but staying clean requires him to keep busy.  The (early) morning after a performance, Ruben is up at daybreak.  He does push ups and squats, blends a smoothie, makes coffee and breakfast.  He has to coax Lou out of bed for their morning ritual of dancing to soul music.  They clearly love each other and support each other.

The next day when they visit the hall where they will be playing that evening, Ruben’s hearing disappears.  He can still hear a little, but it’s as if he’s under water.  The sensation goes away, and they play their gig that evening.  The following morning, Ruben’s hearing loss returns, and this time it does not go away.  He pretends to Lou that all is well, but sees a doctor to get his hearing checked.  The news he gets is bad: he only has about 20% hearing left in each ear.  The hearing loss can’t be reversed.  Getting cochlear implants costs $40-80k, and aren’t covered by insurance.  The doctor tells him that he needs to protect the hearing he has left.

In denial, Ruben and Lou perform that night.  In the middle of their set, Ruben’s hearing loss advances to the point where he can’t hear anything anymore.  Lou calls their manager, who tells them to drive to a deaf community.  Joe, the community’s leader, tells Ruben he needs to stay with them and commit fully to the program.  Unfortunately, Lou can’t stay with him, and Ruben leaves.  Ruben wants to continue the tour so that he can save enough money for implants.  He knows their songs by heart, and can take visual cues from Lou.  In a selfless act, Lou leaves Ruben to force him to go back to the community.

At the community, Joe asks Ruben for his keys and his phone.  Unless Ruben is fully immersed in where he is, he won’t pick up sign language and learn to be deaf.  (An English teacher once said during class that the fastest way to learn a new language is to move yourself to where it is spoken all the time.  If you move to France, you’ll pick up French in a month, he said.)  Ruben also has to recon with the dramatic (and traumatic) turn his life has taken.  His livelihood is based on music, which requires being able to hear.  Without being able to play the drums anymore, he feels his life has no meaning.  Joe knows exactly what Ruben is going through, and has Ruben work out his feelings by writing in a journal every morning.  Initially, Ruben takes out his frustrations by screaming and pummelling a donut, which is both hilarious and sad.

Eventually, Ruben picks up sign language at a local school for the deaf, and becomes quite good at it.  He even brings his drumming skills into the classroom.  He also makes friends with a lesbian member of the deaf community, helping to draw a tattoo design for her.  Unfortunately, Ruben’s former life keeps calling back to him.  His new life is fulfilling to a certain degree, and he does reach a moment of calm in his life, but it’s not enough.  In a heartbreaking scene, Ruben confesses to Joe that he has undergone cochlear implant surgery, and Joe tells him he has to leave immediately.  The community requires full commitment by all of the members, and having Ruben walk around with implants could have a devastating impact on the others.

Ruben does regain his hearing, but it’s nothing like what he had before.  I suspect that the $40k implants he got are not as good as the $80k ones would be.  He can hear, but voices and sounds are distorted, as if they came on a radio that isn’t completely tuned into a station.  But he can hear again, so he seeks out Lou, who has moved in with her father in Paris.  Richard (Mathieu Amalric) grudgingly welcomes Ruben into his home.  Over lunch, Richard tells Ruben that he used to hate him for taking his daughter away from him.  It turns out that Lou’s mom took her away from Richard, then committed suicide.  Richard says that he eventually recognized that Ruben gave Lou safety and security, and for that he’s grateful.

That evening, Ruben watches amazed when Lou and Richard sing a song in French.  (Ruben never knew she spoke French.)  Lou says that while staying with her father, things from her childhood have been coming back to her.  After staying the night, Ruben leaves the following morning.  The life he had with Lou seemingly is over, and he decides to take his chances on the streets of Paris.  After dealing with the harshness of the sounds all around him, Ruben takes off his hearing device.  We last see Ruben taking things in around him, moved by the stillness he feels in complete silence.

Riz Ahmed’s performance as Ruben is a stunning transformation.  No longer the skinny wide-eyed young man we saw in Nightcrawler, The Night Of (HBO) or Venom, Ahmed sports frosted hair and six-pack abs.  He also learned how to drum convincingly and sign language for the role.  He mixes a high-degree of physicality with his usual shy sensitivity, and it’s a compelling performance all around.  The Academy usually loves to recognize actors who undergo physical transformations, so I hope he gets a nomination for his performance.

As Joe, Paul Raci gives an incredible performance as the leader for the deaf community.  His scenes with Ahmed are all master-class acting.  His monologue to Ruben on how he lost his family due to drinking and not hearing loss, was powerful in its simplicity and honesty.

Olivia Cooke provides emotional depth to Lou.  Onstage, she’s a ferocious singer and guitarist.  When she realizes what has happened to Ruben, she is devastated and sad for him.  Back in Paris, she looks at ease and comfortable in her father’s cushy surroundings.  She’s said goodbye to her former life, but still has feelings for Ruben.  It’s an excellent complimentary performance.

Sound of Metal has been getting critical praise for its sound design, as well it should.  As a movie that deals with hearing loss, deafness, then the return of hearing, the sound design effectively puts us in Ruben’s world every step of the way.  

As I watched Sound of Metal, I couldn’t help but see it as a parable to our life during the pandemic.  Losing our way of life for a year (and counting) was been sudden and traumatic for all of us, just like Ruben losing his hearing.  Now, with multiple vaccines available, we seem to be on the verge of regaining the life we knew and desperately want back.  I have a feeling that when COVID-19 is under control, and life returns to normal, it won’t be the normal as we knew it.  I suspect our return to normalcy won’t be a 100% restoration to life-as-we-knew-it.  Like Ruben’s restored hearing, it will be regained, but not quite the same as we remember it.

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