We’ve really gone the full gamut of human emotion this month: from plucky determination to existential dread to pure cynicism. Luckily, we’re ending the month on a high note with a film that’s maybe not a barrel of laughs, though it does promise not to be entirely bleak. And, honestly, it checks off the Riz Ahmed requirement that’s an automatic add to the queue for…almost everyone, I imagine?
Sound of Metal
Losing his hearing, a heavy-metal drummer grapples with the possibility that his future may unfold much differently from the one he anticipated.
The drummer in a heavy-metal band fronted by his girlfriend Lou, Ruben may not be rich, but he’s carved out a happy life for himself. Following some success, the band Blackgammon is touring and even signing a record deal. Now sober for 4 years, Ruben feels loved and accepted for the first time in his life, offering support in return to former self-harming Lou.
Though Ruben is having trouble hearing the words Lou sings during their gigs, he’s quick to shrug this off. I mean, you don’t listen to metal for the clear enunciation of vowel sounds. However, as Ruben intermittently loses his hearing on and off the stage, he can no longer ignore the problem. After seeing a doctor in secret, Ruben learns that his hearing has deteriorated so much that he misses 70 to 80% of spoken words. The doctor’s advice to avoid further damage to Ruben’s hearing? Eliminate exposure to loud noise. Yeah, ain’t gonna happen.
Ruben continues to live his life as if nothing has changed, becoming laser focused on the possibility of hearing implants, which cost an unspeakably large sum and are not covered by health insurance. However, when Ruben can’t hear at all during a gig, he can no longer hide from Lou that his hearing is nearly gone.
Upon learning of Ruben’s condition, Lou immediately calls his sponsor. On his recommendation, they find a rehab center for the deaf and hard of hearing, managed by Joe, a recovering alcoholic who is deaf. To stay at the center, Ruben must go it alone without Lou or even any contact with her. Afraid of losing the love of his life and accepting a new reality, Ruben resists…until Lou buys a plane ticket to stay with her father in Paris, leaving Ruben with no other option but to give it a go.
As Ruben navigates his new existence, the goal fueling him is to fix his hearing, reunite with Lou, and return to his life before hearing loss. He’s given one job at the center: to learn how to be deaf. Despite his reluctance to embrace life at the center, Ruben begins to bond with the members of the community, including the children he begins teaching to play drums. But Joe still feels Ruben is holding onto a need to “fix” his perceived disability and is unable to sit and appreciate silence.
Eventually, Ruben is given the choice to stay at the rehab center or opt for implants that may restore his hearing and help him go back to the life he had before. But if Ruben had seen even one Bill & Ted movie or had one stoned conversation about killing baby Hitler, he would have realized the impossibility of ever going back.
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
I appreciate a lot about this film. The tone is subtle but effective; we certainly know Ruben has a difficult journey ahead, but we never get the feeling that all hope is lost. I can’t personally address the portrayal of the deaf community, but there has been overall a positive reaction to its depiction here. I enjoy the levels at play as well; the story works as a meaningful reflection on navigating circumstances beyond your control and adapting with some measure of grace to new ways of living and experiencing the world. A message I can appreciate if not apply to my own life.
What held me back slightly in my rating was the lack of narrative structure. Ruben’s struggle to accept his life as it is–all of the torment and back-and-forth agony–feels realistic, but it’s very frustrating at times. You most likely have some idea of how the film ends based on its tone and approach (along with all of the reviews about this as an uplifting story), so there are stages where it’s difficult not to will Ruben to get his shit together faster. However, this is also an approach that makes the last scenes feel earned and satisfactory. What can I say? Always a critic.
The performances are great (Riz Ahmed in particular carries this film), and I was happy to see the editing and sound crew receive Oscar wins for their work. Though I found the performances compelling, I didn’t always feel the supporting characters seemed real. Almost every character seems to exist to support Ruben on his journey, which is…nice? But at times took me out of the story.