Destiny, meaning, love, and lingering loss are the essential elements of drama. Known to us since Sophocles and Shakespeare, we judge literature, art, and cinema by these metrics. Sound of Metal- an Amazon original directed by Darius Marder, starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, and Paul Raci- has these qualities in abundance. Yet, the first experience of this challenging and profound film introduces us to psychological horror before it tackles human tragedy.
To anyone who has strung and tuned a guitar, practiced the C-Major scale on an aging keyboard or grand piano, invested the time to wear away skin and earn the calluses of mastery. To anyone who has found meaning in artistic creations and the applause of varied crowds, the idea that all of it can be stripped from you by forces beyond your control is an existential horror, something like accepting the inevitability of death. I am one of those people (singer in a underrated local rock band), and Sound of Metal reached deep into the recesses of my subconscious and unsettled me with inchoate dread. The inevitability of death is not exactly an overlooked horror in a society obsessed with youth and obsolescence, yet Sound of Metal explicates the variegated ways that that horror manifests itself through the (relatively) minor privations a cruel world inflicts. Unexpectedly, within that overarching horror and within every minor privation resides the possibility and promise of life beyond.
Sound of Metal is based on a tragic premise: rapid, uncontrollable obsolescence and the human response. The film (co-written by Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance) chronicles how Riz Ahmed’s Ruben Stone deals with the fact that he is rapidly losing his hearing even as he chases a life in music. Ahmed gives a career-best performance ranging from rage to mania, depression, and acceptance as Ruben struggles to find a way out of the morass.
The movie begins in a way very familiar to those who have grown up going to local shows, with hometown heroes and touring bands on the edge of destitution swapping stages and merch. It is a measure of the artistry of Marder, cinematographer Daniel Bouquet and the entire crew, that the scene seems so familiar. As I watched, I felt the emotions that always accompanied watching a band I’d never seen before start to play. I could almost smell the stale beer and the rank sweat. I halfway expected to be jostled by some over-eager fan. I found myself rooting for this band, wanting them to be good, waiting for the riff to tear my face off. In 2020, a year of no local shows, it is a feeling that far from sluggish woke within me without delay as soon as the distortion filtered into my ears.
Ahmed and the wonderfully rampant Cooke both play the part of road-weary musicians with aplomb. Ahmed in particular showcases what seems to be real drum chops (he learned to play the drums in 7 months). Cooke reminds me of forces of nature like Samm Bones of Pittsburgh (the embodiment of the maven Cooke plays), and her onstage energy contrasts sharply with the cool, brooding presence that Ahmed projects. Offstage, Oliva Cooke’s dewy-eyed Lou is our window into the storm surrounding the pair, and Marden weaves her traumas into concern for Ruben in a masterful way.
When disaster strikes, it is immediate and the sound design clues us into what Ruben is experiencing.
There is no moment as poignant in the first act of the movie than when Ruben screams in terror and anguish following the worsening of his hearing, the audience is as unable to help Ruben as he is to hear his own voice. The existential horror of a meaningless, inarticulate, paroxysm of pain hits like a sledgehammer.
Marder does a fantastic job showcasing the sense of panic that can so easily overtake an ideal situation when the status quo is challenged. Intimate scenes of Cooke and Ahmed’s relationship hint at a union with abiding love and affection, grounding the unfolding calamity with real emotional stakes. The chemistry between Cooke and Ahmed is electric, believable, and punishing in its realness. Riz has disappeared entirely into this character, in him I see elements of the musicians that have littered my life – sensitive, artistic, driven, and troubled- and in doing so he hits upon a portrayal more sincere than any I’ve seen this year.
The lack of score helps to firmly ground the movie itself, creating a film experience that almost mimics the documentary style. The lack of score almost becomes a supporting character, reminding us of the real-world emphasis we all place on sound and hearing it. It functions as a silent, subconscious Grecian chorus, gravely urging us to reflect with the movie on how much of our existence is auditory.
As shown in the trailers, Ahmed meets Paul Raci’s Joe at a center dedicated to the support of the deaf. Joe, hard-bitten, straightforward, and formidable becomes a necessary foil to the younger Ruben. Smartly, Marden allows the generational gap between Ahmed and Joe to be revealed over time and doesn’t insult us with some obvious “conflict” to be resolved in the third act. Instead, Marder and Cianfrance introduce meaningful contrasts between the two- religion, military service, stage in life- and allow those differences to provide silent antithesis that adds depth to their interactions.
Paul Raci is playing a well-worn part: the hardboiled veteran who understands the trauma of the protagonist but must toughly and tenderly introduce him to the new reality of his condition. However, he still manages to make his character more than trite. Ruben and Joe’s first conversation – held through a computer that translates Joe’s words to Ruben- is a masterpiece in brutal understatement.
Joe also serves as our introduction to the world of the deaf that many members of the audience (as well as Ruben) are being introduced to for the first time. We see the community together in play, in service, and at mealtime. They speak to each other in ways that are strange to the majority audience watching and Marder is content to not provide subtitles, to instead let their language be as foreign to us as it is for Ruben.
With time, Ruben begins to face himself, and as he turns inward, we learn more about the philosophy that made him.
To Ruben, the world is unceasingly cold and cruel, with no saviors in sight.
This introspection is two dimensional, functioning as a reflection of Ruben’s self-conception and ours, as the audience. It is this that provided me with a surprising conclusion: Sound of Metal is deeply, inescapably religious. To the pagan Ruben, the world is ceaselessly cruel and we must endure it alone. Ruben encounters rebuttal in the form of what is essentially a convert community of the deaf. As shown in the trailer, it is here that Ruben must settle down to the work of living again.
In a pivotal conversation with Joe, Ruben admits that he desperately wants an operation that can change his fortunes because “nobody is going to save my life”, in saying this Ruben echoes thousands of young men similarly aimless and stripped of purpose, despairing of the old gods and therefore hellbent on saving themselves. Marder places a canny rebuttal in the mouth of Joe, who tells Ruben and Lou that the ministry that Ruben will come to stay in is built by religious people but is not meant for evangelization, of course, this points to the necessity for acknowledging Christian/religious contributions to and remnants of within our society.
Expectedly, Ruben gains a renewed sense of self from his interactions with his new community, these things only go one way in movies. Yet Marder and co. seed even the obvious with societal critique. While with Joe, Ruben is introduced to the bracing idea that deafness is no handicap and no barrier, his interaction with that idea produces some of the most profound and interesting thematic content any filmmaker has conjured this year. To Joe, far from being a handicap being deaf can lead to divinity, drawing from the prophet Elijah, Joe remarks that “in the moments of stillness is the kingdom of God.” Ruben must wrestle with his newfound divine calling even as he proceeds to use any means necessary to try and regain his hearing. It is his response to this tension that defines the film.
Ruben rejects the alluring agitprop of the community in favor of grasping attempts to recreate the world that he has lost. Ruben gets what he wants but finds it wanting. Intended or not, Marder and co. have created a profoundly Christian narrative. There is something of the rich young ruler in the idea of selling all that you have for what you most want and an even more straightforward biblical analogue in the story of the woman with the issue of blood. However, the most powerful Christian element is the fall of man. Marder weaves the ancient story into the modern context with the subtlety of a master.
Here, Ruben (the name of one of Jacob’s sons according to the Old Testament) begins the movie as Adam, living a life of rapture. The deafness that is sprung upon him drives him out from his land of bliss and tosses him into an unfamiliar world that he must ceaselessly cultivate. A world like death (God’s stern punishment for Adam and Eve). In the same sense as mentioned before, the brutal separation of Ruben from his years invested in his mission, his craft is like death because like death his loss of hearing severs him from his calling forever with inexorable force.
Ruben’s story then follows the 100,00-year-long saga of mankind attempting to recreate paradise on earth. He rages and screams against the inevitable but is hermetically sealed from the world he once knew. He sells all he has to recreate that world to the best of his ability (mimicking man’s cocksure beliefs that through the myth of “progress” Heaven will become reachable) but finds that world insufficient. The analogy is imperfect, but in an irreligious yet strangely Christianity intoxicated age it is these sorts of syncretic syntheses that dominate cultural criticism. Ruben’s grasping struggle to shift the tides of his fate by force is a stinging indictment of whiggish views of progress and is made more incisive after a century of failed utopias.
Sound of Metal beautifully sets up a contrast between the natural, the constructed, and the fallen world.
Subtly, the film recapitulates secular modernity’s bewildering inability to construct the world to its own vision. Time and again we have striven against the world and found the world pushing back, almost as if there are constraints to our collective power. As a modern man, Ruben cannot bend the world to suit his will. Ruben finds that he cannot live by noble lies or “tricks.” Cleverness, the advances of science, and an abundance of resources are defeated by nature.
Biblical allusions are not the entirety of Marder and co’s interaction with society. Sound of Metal also interacts with the necessity of activism and individualism in an isolated world. Through Joe, Ruben finds that exclusion from the world he knew can mean inclusion in another – through a process that can only be thought of as a certain type of conversion. According to Joe to become a full member of this community Ruben must live as if he has lost nothing. This is a question of raucous debate in the deaf community and wisely, Marder does not pretend to have an answer. What Marder does offer is salvation and through this soteriological activity finds cinematic triumph.
The ending of Sound of Metal blends tragedy, acceptance, and triumph in intoxicating fashion.
Having faced a tearful conclusion to his former life and love, Ruben strives once more to hold on to the life that he led before. Equipped with the latest attempt of modernity to replicate the natural world that he must leave behind he wanders the streets of Paris, growing more and more disillusioned with the fact that he can’t replicate sound as he knew it. Here, he accepts loss. The entire intention of his life post-deafness is to recapture what had been so cruelly stolen. Opposed to this is the gravitas of Joe, telling him that he has not suffered a loss at all. He contemplates this as he wanders and finally, he relents to the world that is. He cannot blithely accept that he is not suffering and that the thing he cannot do is not lost.
Someone wise once said that whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will find it. This is the paradox that confronts Ruben as he sits on the precipice of decision: he must decide if he is willing to admit that he has lost a certain kind of life to continue living. The unnatural world he has created is inferior to both the world he knew before and the world that impinges upon him. It is an ungainly, awkward, unnatural chimera of life that barely masks the little-death that he has undergone. Ruben acknowledges that he cannot go back.
On the streets of Paris, Ruben finds that God is not in the rushing of the wind, the bustling of the streets, or the joy of the children. God is in the stillness.
Of course, this is the most Christian and soteriological of the allusions: from suffering, comes salvation, and through man’s acceptance of his own inadequacy comes the kingdom of God. From indescribable pain comes ineffable joy. Salvation in an irreligious age.
How metal is that?