Catastrophe is at the core of Sound of Metal. An atom bomb explodes early on in the film, and the audience rides its shockwaves for the remaining runtime. As viewers, we consider the protagonist’s luck of the draw, but the film ultimately sheds such questions. We’re not here to count our blessings. We’re here to soak in the laughter of God as plans shatter with glorious grandeur.
A nodal event is an occurrence in your life that radically shifts the path you’re currently traveling upon. The loss of a loved one, a promotion at your job, a winning lottery ticket, an unexpected diagnosis. These events come suddenly. They’re an injection of chaos allegedly orchestrated by a higher power to test not just your fortitude but your idea of self.
The you of today is not the you of yesterday or tomorrow. To deny fluidity is to deny existence. To fight against it causes unnecessary turmoil. There is no greater war than acceptance.
Reuben (Riz Ahmed) roars behind his drums. As a recovering addict, he’s on a bit of an upswing. His relationship with frontwoman Lou (Olivia Cooke) is as strong as his sobriety: four years. They share the mission of the road. They’re building an audience one gig at a time, and an album is formulating by the second.
There’s a ringing in Reuben’s ears. It buzzes, but it’s easy to ignore. Until it’s not.
He awakens one morning and the world around him is silent. Reuben attempts to pop his ears. Nothing. He calls out, but cannot hear his words. He tries a little louder. Still. Nothing.
The reason goes unexplored. The why doesn’t matter. He’s gone deaf. The reality of the transformation crushes everything else.
Writer/director Darius Marder structures Sound of Metal around the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Reuben initially doesn’t even bother to tell Lou of his problem. If he acts fast, a doctor can fix him. He runs on that fantasy until he can no longer.
Reuben and Lou attempt a performance, but sense memory can only take him so far. Sound of Metal spends the majority of its screenplay toggling within anger, bargaining, and depression. Lou eventually gets Reuben’s sponsor on the phone, and he connects Reuben with Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing when a bomb stole it from him. He now runs a tiny deaf community thanks to the financial assistance of the church.
With few other options at his disposal, Reuben agrees to stay. Lou gives him a strong, sorrowful hug and fades away to continue the road she was already speeding along. Joe’s job is to cut through Reuben’s torment, to cast off the five stages of death, and reveal to him how no one has actually died. The rage and frustration are proof of life. Recognize it, and flip the album. A new song awaits.
Reuben treads water. As a man who believed deeply in his previous plan, he’s already formulating another one to return him to his old self. All he needs is forty grand, and he can buy his way back into hearing.
On his first doctor’s visit, the physician attempted to keep Reuben’s hope alive with the promise of a cochlear implant. The surgically embedded device could provide him with an approximation of sound, but it costs a lot of bread and will never be the miracle Reuben wants it to be. At this point, Reuben only acknowledges the words he can connect to the person he was before. He hangs his future on this technology.
Sound of Metal appears in conversation with another film that came out earlier last year. Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is a document of a child desperately attempting to master Ludwig van Beethoven‘s “Piano Sonata No. 14″ while navigating deafness and its eradication through the application of a cochlear implant. Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky invades her life, and her son’s life, and her parents’ life with her camera, capturing every painful pang in a journey of discovery, where deafness is not an affliction, but a community.
As we see in that documentary, the cochlear implant is regarded by many as an antagonist. It’s a weapon designed to obliterate a way of life, a threat to those that did not overcome a disability but flourished in a rare and cherished environment. The absence of sound is not a failing or a flawed state of being. It’s a superpower, offering abilities to those who master it.
For Joe, and the company around him, Reuben’s anguished determination to secure the cash and the implant is an offense – an attack. The thought process alone is poisonous enough, and Joe worries that it could infect the others. If he is unable to conquer Reuben’s backward desire, then he must expel the ex-drummer from his house.
Reuben’s internal war in Sound of Metal is played on two fronts. Riz Ahmed’s body crackles and shivers. He’s an exposed nerve, quivering across the frame. The air itself seemingly slashes at his skin, making it impossible for him to achieve the stillness Joe champions. Ahmed is electric, and Reuben’s agony sizzles loudly in its transmission from screen to viewer.
The second front is the incredible sound design edited by Nicolas Becker and Maria Carolina Santana Caraballo-Gramcko. They present three distinct universes: Reuben’s soundscape of before, the silent soundscape, and the alien cochlear soundscape. Depending on where he is on his path, the sound design ripples with a specific sentiment. Through their aural manipulation, we arrive at the desired emotional climax before Reuben does.
Silence is not a curse. It’s not a gift. It just is.
It’s on Reuben to transform the silence into a superpower. It’s on us to see what experience we inhabit and transform it into a superpower. Sound of Metal exemplifies the potential humanity possesses to adapt, survive, and thrive. We must lean into the challenges we’re presented with, not buck against them. Holding onto the person we were blocks us from the person we are and who we will be.