dir: Darius Marder
This was a great film that I’d heard a lot about last year, but only just got to see. It’s on Amazon Prime, available for streaming, and I’m not going to pretend that I have a subscription to that as well as the other 4 thousand streaming services. I’m not made of bitcoin.
It’s even, and I’m not making this up, playing in Melbourne cinemas such as Nova in Carlton, the Lido in Hawthorn or the Westgarth in…I forget what that suburb is called. I don’t know who’s going to cinemas right now, but whoever they are, I salute you, you crazy bastards, as long as you’re not maskless anti-vaxxer morons, in which case fuck you and your dumb selfishness.
Ordinarily, in any given year where Daniel Day Lewis hasn’t made a movie, and Christian Bale or Mathew McConaghey haven’t starved themselves down to skeletons for a role, it would be hard to pick who gave the performance of the year. This isn’t necessarily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year (though it’s pretty close), but I reckon Riz Ahmed’s performance here as the main character Ruben is the best male performance I recall in 2020. And that’s saying something, because there were a lot of great performances last year, in films probably made before people realised what was going to happen to the world, or especially to the States, which has lost nearly half a million people to the virus thus far. When I look at all the films I saw in 2020, what most of them have in common is great performances mostly by women. For whatever reason 2020 was not the year of watching men do manly things.
No, Riz is the man for this performance. Give him the Oscar already, not that there’s going to be a ceremony this year (gods, I hope not, but who knows). Just send it to him in the mail, he can record a short message on Zoom thanking the Academy, and that will be it.
He plays Ruben, the drummer in a hardcore band, him and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The less said about the name of the band, being Blackgammon, the better. They are pretty noisy, and Ruben hits the skins pretty fucking hard. Based on the night we see, and the next morning, Ruben and Lou have a pretty tight schedule. They travel around a lot from gig to gig, always working, always trying to keep busy. Non-stop touring, something which they seem to have been doing for four years.
However. Ruben is starting to find it hard to hear anything. It first happens during a gig, but it keeps happening afterwards as well. He is scared and confused. Lou’s pretty confused as well.
This all starts happening fairly soon into the movie, so I don’t think it’s really that much of a spoiler to tell you, dear reader, that Ruben is losing his hearing, and it seems like it could be permanent.
A doctor, after testing him, tells Ruben he’s lost nearly 70% of his hearing, and that he needs to avoid exposure to loud noise, but loud noise is his life. He can’t stop playing because he fears what will happen if he’s not playing.
And just like that, despite the warnings, despite the fact that he doesn’t even wear earplugs, he’s completely, profoundly deaf in the middle of a gig.
It’s pretty hard to hide the fact that you’re deaf from your bandmate and girlfriend, so he bravely doesn’t even try any more, especially since basic communication is now impossible for them.
This looks like, and is acted like it would be a hellishly confusing and frightening time. The added wrinkle, though, is that Lou is scared of more than just Ruben losing his hearing.
You only get the sense of this later on, in the sense that Ruben and Lou had carefully crafted their life together with a very specific goal beyond that of their shared love of music: both of them have been clean for 4 year; Ruben is a recovering addict, Lou was self-harming. Their rigorous touring schedule and the demands of being on the road gave them something to dedicate their lives to, to distract them from their own impulses. And it worked, until now.
Maybe this is an aspect of the film that seems almost too good to be true, especially since this is set in America, but there are plenty of people willing and able to help Ruben right from the start. From medical appointments with specialists to support programs for addicts, it’s not like Ruben and Lou are struggling to get the support they need, and people are remarkably helpful and supportive, even if Ruben is reluctant to accept help.
After being told that the one medical solution for his problem would be cochlear implants, which aren’t covered by medical insurance and would cost tens of thousands of dollars, Lou’s biggest fear is that Ruben will start using again, so the solution is a support group for deaf addicts. It’s probably not the most apt way to describe it, but it’s essentially what it is. Joe (Paul Raci), a man who looks like he has seen and done absolutely everything under the sun, looks after a group of completely deaf people who also have substance issues, and he welcomes Ruben, but tells him he has strict rules for allowing him to stay.
We don’t get the sense that Ruben is on the edge because he’s gone deaf: we get the sense that losing his routine, his co-dependent relationship with Lou, and the support of knowing what to be doing at any given moment means he’s likely to fall into other patterns. Staying as part of a deaf community, integrating with them, supporting each other, learning to sign, and having no contact with Lou or anyone else, doesn’t seem like something he can bring himself to do.
He doesn’t have a lot of choices, though. The story jumps ahead a few months. Ruben is friendly with the other members, is learning to sign, does his chores, takes lessons at a nearby school for hearing impaired kids, even helps some of the kids there who have attention issues on top of their other issues. It looks like he’s making it work, and finding a new place in life. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Ruben is covered in nasty looking tatts, tatts that have a deliberate DIY aesthetic, going for dirtbag / prison looks rather than arty endless redoes of Japanese yakuza art or band logos. He even finds time to design a tattoo for one of the other support group members, who just might be gay (it’s a safe bet), and later we see it on her shoulder when he helps him out with something.
His interactions with Joe are still supportive and paternalistic (in a good way), but there is a tension there. Joe really wants to help Ruben, but he sees the risk Ruben represents to the group. Ruben’s issues with recovery aren’t as serious, perhaps, as Ruben’s conviction that his deafness will only be a temporary thing. When Joe sees Ruben doing some amateur carpentry early one morning, he understands that Ruben’s need to keep himself occupied, to deal with the tension brought up by his addiction, is a bigger problem than access or temptation to get drugs.
It’s with this world-weary sense that he tells Ruben that he is not to do anything around the place. Any early morning that he finds himself anxious or restless, he is to take himself to a room, with a cup of coffee and a donut helpfully supplied by Joe, and he is to sit in that room and write in a book until he finds a moment of stillness that he can reside within.
This is incredibly important, mostly because it’s so simple, but incredibly complex from this perspective: I have no idea whether this is actually what’s going on in Joe’s or Ruben’s heads. These are the things that occur, but a lot of the assumptions I’m underlining are unspoken, aren’t explicitly articulated, which is to the film’s benefit. Joe is not here to hold Ruben’s hand, or ours either, for that matter. He will give him a safe environment and the tools with which he can support himself and the people around him, but he can only bring Ruben thus far.
And, see, everything works until it doesn’t any more. It becomes pretty clear that Ruben’s intention all along has been for this all to be temporary. He seems to appreciate Joe and the people around him, even the strictures and camaraderie, but it seems his plan has always been to try to reclaim his old life.
You probably think you can guess how that might turn out, but if it sounds like a story worth your time, which I'm pretty sure it is, you could consider watching it instead. The story doesn’t seem to have, as its point, that Ruben is wrong about some of his approaches to life or his difficulties. It’s his life, how can it be wrong? That there are opportunities, and people around him that offer him support and a new way of navigating life, and that he might not be able to accept it yet isn’t an indictment either of Ruben or of those trying to help him. Sometimes we have to be ready and accepting for something to help us, because if we’re not in the right place, in the right frame of mind, it’s not going to work. We have to live through a lot in order to see what we’re right and what we’re wrong about.
While I might have groaned at some of Ruben’s choices, I think throughout the flick you’re pretty much on his side. You wish that things could be different, or that maybe he had the maturity or breathing space in order to accept them, but you understand that he needs to feel it for himself. Riz Ahmed is phenomenal throughout the flick. This is not an easy character to play and keep sympathetic, but I think he stays on the right side of being wrong for what seem like the right reasons, and the tension he brings across in his performance, not of someone on the edge of lashing out, but of someone tightly coiled with a certain energy, hoping to protect himself and others, works wonders for the portrayal as well. He really is quite strong in this. He isn’t really a punk drummer in real life, being a British Muslim rapper and actor in ‘real’ life, but he’s utterly convincing as this guy who is at odds with the world, and who is striving for something unattainable. The flick isn’t horrible to Ruben, I don’t think, in that it might put him through the ringer emotionally, but it doesn’t wallow in harming him for our amusement.
That said, it doesn’t strive to create a happily ever after kind of ending for him either. Ruben’s illusions about going back to his previous life, or putting together a suitable substitute with bits and pieces from before are fairly ephemeral, and reality has a habit of not going along with what we would wish. I chose to see the ending as a hopeful one which, if you think about it logistically isn’t an easy or likely one, but it could happen for him, if he accepts parts of his new reality. I’m trying to speak obliquely about where the story goes, so without spoiling it, I want to reiterate – this is not a harrowing journey into addiction and harm and all those kinds of stories: It’s a story about people trying to do the best they can when their lives fall apart, and finding a way through, with help, and with acceptance. As a Buddhist there are parts of this story that resonate so deeply with me, but the word “Buddhism” isn’t mentioned once, and I don’t think any of it is dependent on any spiritual or religious feeling at all.
Riz is great, but the true MVP is Joe, or more accurately Paul Raci. I loved his character and performance so much. If Riz gets the Best Actor gong, it’s only right and proper that Paul get the nod for Best Supporting, because he’s an incredible support in the story, even if his support is churlishly cast aside.
Sound of Metal is a very human story, which is one of the highest compliments I can ever pay a film.
9 times there isn’t a lot of metal in this flick, which would probably be a relief for a lot of the non-deaf listeners / viewers out of 10
“Ruben. As you know, everybody here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap. Not something to fix. It's pretty important around here. All these kids... all of us, need to be reminded of it every day.” - Sound of Metal