SOUND OF METAL is not what I pictured at all. It’s about this guy Ruben (Riz Ahmed, VENOM) who’s a heavy metal* drummer, and then he loses his hearing. That’s the part I did know. The poster and the trailer and everything all focus on him shirtless on stage banging away on those things, and especially since it was nominated for best picture I had to figure it was about him struggling and overcoming and finding some thrillingly dramatic way to keep playing. I’ve heard of deaf people who play music based on vibrations, so I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s loud music, after all.
That’s not what this is at all. In the beginning he’s on tour with his group Blackgammon, which is just him and bleached-eyebrow singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke, READY PLAYER ONE). They live in an RV (a little nicer than NOMADLAND) so they’ll just play a show at some small place, try to sell some records and merch, then move along to the next town and find the next place.
The hearing loss seems pretty out of the blue. His ears just start ringing before a show. Then it sounds like he’s underwater. He just kinda pretends it’s nothing and hopes it will pass. Doesn’t even tell Lou. During the show he just goes for it, and Lou is looking at him like something’s wrong, so we wonder how far off he is. Suddenly he loses it, gets up and runs out the fire exit.
The sound design often switches to his perspective, so we can barely make it out as he keeps yelling “I can’t hear anything!” to Lou in an alley behind the club. He goes into a pharmacy and tries to get help. We can see that this is not a normal customer transaction for the pharmacist (Michael Tow, R.I.P.D.), and he fortunately takes it seriously enough to make some calls and find a doctor (Tom Kemp, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) who’s willing to see him right now.
How can I explain the character of Ruben? He’s a very recognizable but hard-to-put-your-finger-on combination of abrasive and friendly. He’s kind of terse and blunt and you could say he has a bad attitude, but he’s basically nice. Bitter, but not an asshole. A pretty cool guy in a very scary situation. That he’s not freaking out seems to come down to naivete. He just assumes there’s gotta be a fix for this. Hey, get me the thing that fixes this. That’s all I want.
Through amplifying headphones the doctor tells him that he’s rapidly losing his hearing, it’s mostly gone and will get worse soon, so he needs to stay away from the loud music and start learning how to live this way. Ruben asks if he can just get surgery, so the doctor tells him about cochlear implants, how expensive they are and that they’re not covered by insurance – basically, indicating that they’re not a realistic solution. By the time Ruben gets back to Lou though it’s like, eh, no big deal, there’s these implants you get, that’s all.
We get the idea that Ruben and Lou are two very troubled people who take care of each other well. I don’t know if that’s codependent or whatever, but it’s sweet. We saw all the scars on Lou’s wrists, and Ruben is in recovery. She makes him tell his sponsor Hector on the phone that he smoked a cigarette, a big issue even in the midst of all this. It’s very lucky they have Hector to call – he finds a place they can go for help. A place out in the country where deaf addicts can stay.
I’m not familiar with this music scene at all, or the life of a touring musician, or living in an RV. But I could really relate to that feeling of being somebody who’s into their own trip and much more adept at weirdo shit than at normal grown up things, so when something heavy like this comes along they feel unequipped to face it or deal with it. You just want it to go away, or you want the doctor to be able to say okay, we just do this and you can go back to what you were doing before. You want there to be one weird trick. But of course it doesn’t work that way.
Ruben goes and checks out this place, which is run by Joe (Paul Raci, THE GLIMMER MAN), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing during the Vietnam War, so he can talk into a microphone that puts his words on a screen for Ruben while he reads Ruben’s lips. Joe is an instantly arresting character: a guy who speaks in speeches, but does not seem full of shit. He seems no nonsense, but full of love. He’s wise and good at connecting with people and also with laying down the law. And the main thing that he communicates to Ruben is that this is a Deaf community, for people who do not see deafness as a handicap, and he should stay here and learn how to be Deaf.
(Yes, I’m trying to capitalize Deaf when it refers to the community, hope I got it right.)
We don’t have any money, Ruben says. Well, we have local churches that will sponsor people. Oh, we’re not religious, so, no thank you. It has nothing to do with religion. They just sponsor people. But you have to separate yourself from the outside world. So Lou can’t stay with you.
Oh, okay, we can’t do that then. So he leaves. He was looking for a reason, I think, and he found one.
The idea of losing one of your senses is, of course, terrifying, the sound design here really laying that on by giving you tastes of it. But along with that comes losing so much more that you take for granted. Ruben doesn’t want to give anything up, but he’s forced to. The scene where Lou puts her foot down, insists that he has to go back to Joe’s place and leaves in a cab – that scene is the one that really got me. She loves him so much and has to get it through to him that he has no choice but to do this. And it does get through to him, but then he’s sitting there alone with the RV they’ve always lived together in, and basically a choice to make this big leap or do something really stupid.
So most of the movie is about him in this place, isolated from everything he’s ever known, still wearing t-shirts of the bands he can’t listen to anymore, in a community where every one is Deaf and everyone besides him uses American Sign Language. A group of them are addicts, but also there are kids and all kinds of people. A few of them look more punk than he does. He’s not really rude – he keeps trying to say “Hey, what’s up” to people before he remembers they don’t hear him. He still talks, though he can’t hear himself, and the movie keeps putting us into his head, hearing nothing but seeing all this activity around him that he can’t understand. There are all these scenes with people joking with each other and having fun in ASL – no subtitles until he starts to understand it. I like the scene at the dinner table that suddenly switches from Ruben’s hearing to full sound and we see that although no one is speaking there’s all kinds of noise from silverware and hands hitting the table and stuff.
Lauren Ridloff, a deaf actress who was on The Walking Dead until she fell in a hole and got separated from everybody (apparently so she could be in THE ETERNALS!), plays a teacher named Diane who brings Ruben into her class of kids to teach him to sign. He’s unenthusiastic and half-assed about it for a while. But there’s a sweet little moment where he does a little drumming on a playground slide for a kid. Judging from the time jump that happens next it seems like that could be a turning point, and maybe the reason for the title?
Once he really gets into it and learns how to sign it’s like a completely new Ruben. He’s playing with the kids, joking with them, using his talents to help with classes, and has friendships with many of the adults. He seems much happier and more outgoing than we ever saw him when he could hear, when he only really talked to one person.
The movie goes in other interesting directions that I’ll discuss in a spoiler section below, so I’ll try to be vague here. I don’t know if it’s a problem for anyone that we have two hearing actors playing deaf (surrounded by more deaf actors than any movie I know of) and I’m not qualified to judge. Raci was raised by deaf parents, so he already knew ASL and was very familiar with the community. It’s easy to see why this obscure, semi-retired character actor getting this role and giving this performance has been a triumph-of-the-underdog sensation and got him an Oscar nomination (which I think he’s gonna win [unless it’s Kaluuya]). Joe is one of those characters who seems more like some interesting guy they found to play himself than an acting performance. He’s a mentor, a friend, the leader and guru of an unusual community, a sponsor, a boss. He has a flair for drama – like when he gives Ruben an assignment to sit in a chair and write anything he wants to in a notebook all day, and doesn’t give him any idea what he wants him to learn from this – but all his eccentricities are lovable ones. You want to know Joe. You want Joe to be proud of you.
And then there’s a scene – the scene – where they have an important talk. Joe is staring at Ruben somewhat inscrutably. And then he gets this look on his face like a video got paused one frame before he’s going to burst into tears. He holds onto that face for so long before he reveals specifically what is breaking his heart. An undeniable cinematic moment and it’s mostly just this guy’s face.
I have to admit I haven’t really caught on to the Riz Ahmed hype before. I think I liked him in NIGHTCRAWLER, maybe I haven’t seen the right things otherwise. But in this role – yeah, now I get it. Set aside that he had to learn ASL and probly some amount of drumming and then he has to do some unusual stuff of communicating while he can’t hear. Obviously all that requires serious commitment. But even without any of that, it’s just such a completely different guy from what I see in his other movies and in interviews. His face looks different. His voice sounds different. I completely forgot he was British. But it’s not remotely showy. It’s so natural. I feel like I’ve known so many versions of Ruben.
It’s a movie about many things, including the simple act of showing us this Deaf community and culture that many of us rarely see. I had read a little about cochlear implants being a sensitive subject in the Deaf community, because they don’t see deafness as something to be cured, and could even see it as a betrayal. (Oh shit it’s just like the cure from X-MEN: THE LAST STAND!) I thought that was interesting because it’s something that never would’ve occurred to me, with my lack of exposure to anyone dealing with these issues. By showing us some of this world I feel the movie made me understand it better.
But mostly I think SOUND OF METAL is interesting as a character piece about this relatably stubborn guy and how he deals with this situation. (Answer: not always the smartest way.)
ENDING SPOILERS SECTION. If you’ve seen it – man, isn’t that brutal when he decides to get the implants? It’s understandable, but we can see how desperate it is. There seems to be an amount of jealousy when he finds out that Lou is having success on her own. He has to insert himself in there before she catches on that she doesn’t need him. If she hasn’t already. And he just never bothers to learn the details about the implants. Just wants to pay the money and be done.
It’s so painful to see him permanently exile himself from this community that seemed to offer him so much. Especially when we hear what the world sounds like with the implants. But you know how Ruben is. He doesn’t say much and acts like it’s fine.
I like how Lou’s dad (Mathieu Amalric, MUNICH) is so nice and welcoming to him, and not in a condescending way, and that place is so cool and Ruben is reunited with the woman he loves, and (no matter how nervous we are about it) she does not have a new man or anything, and there’s this big fancy French people wine party and it just seems like such a fantasy. But the poor guy can’t enjoy most of it because the noise of the party makes it sound like pans are banging against his head, and he has to sit with everyone watching lovingly as his girlfriend sings a duet with her dad, and not let on that in his implants it sounds like a nightmare. Just harrowing.
I love that aforementioned scene with Joe, because we can see that Ruben is acting like a junkie, while knowing that he’s not using and is telling the truth about what he wants money for. That tells us that in a way he is being an addict, but he’s addicted to this life of trying to hear and be with Lou and be as much like he used to be as possible. The movie seems to be of the opinion that he can’t, and shouldn’t, keep on living the life he was. That’s not a comforting message to receive until you realize that it’s telling you you can continue on and maybe even find your true self when the most drastic changes are thrown at your life.
END OF ENDING SPOILERS SECTION.
SOUND OF METAL is the first narrative film from director Darius Marder (his first film was the 2008 documentary LOOT, about an amateur treasure hunter helping two veterans search for valuables they stole and hid during combat in WWII.
BLUE VALENTINE director Derek Cianfrance has a story credit on the movie because, according to Indiewire, the film came out of his never-completed experimental film METALHEAD, a “documentary-narrative hybrid about a heavy-metal drummer with ruptured eardrums.” That version starred the band Jucifer (also a female-male duo) in improvisational scenes based on their real lives. (I hope they can at least include some clips of that on the upcoming Criterion Edition of this.) After the success of BLUE VALENTINE, Cianfrance went off to do THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, which he ended up heavily rewriting with his friend Marder, and so wanted Marder to have another project lined up he suggested taking over METALHEAD. Inspired by his deaf grandmother, Cianfrance reworked it into a story about the Deaf community, co-writing with his brother Abraham, who worked in many of his feelings as a musician put out of work by a back injury and stomach infection.
So it seems like a unique confluence of circumstances led to this one, but there’s obviously some great talent behind it. I look forward to what all these people do next.