Dir. Darius Marder. Starring Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci, Olivia Cooke
If you know the basic premise of Sound of Metal going into the film, even if it’s as simple as “rock drummer starts going deaf,” then you know what’s going to happen in this movie. The scenes fall into place in logical ways. If you expect Ruben (Ahmed) to freak out, if you expect him to find a wise counselor at a center for the deaf, if you expect him to begin to come to terms with his condition, if you expect him to double back, and if you expect him to ultimately make peace with his deafness: yes. I’m being a little bit abrupt on purpose here, even though this description papers over some of the movie’s better moments. A deaf child bangs on a slide, and Ruben drums in response, the first time he’s drummed since he’s come to the shelter; they can both feel the vibrations. Late in the film, Joe (Raci) calls out Ruben’s increasingly erratic behavior and kicks him out because Ruben is making decisions for himself which would damage the morale and mission of the entire place; it’s the big scene for Raci, who plays it not like it’s a big scene to chew on but like it’s a moment which is deeply discouraging and personally painful for Joe himself. (This is an understated movie at its best, which means that Raci is frequently there when the movie is at its best.) Ruben races a kid to sign the alphabet as quickly as possible in ASL, loses the first one by a nose, demands a rematch, and wins the second one much to his delight.
This is not a film which is out to surprise you, except maybe when we take a little detour to France in the end. If there’s a common critique I’ve found of this movie, from Letterboxd to the Film Comment podcast, it’s that the voyage en France is a little too random, maybe pulls us out of the movie a little bit because of how it no longer suits the vibe that was present in the first seventy-five percent. It’s the movie’s boldest, most idiosyncratic choice, and it’s definitely the one that’s gotten the most pushback. The more I think about it, the more I like that the movie throws us this curveball here at the finish. It’s what separates this movie from your average picture about a body being changed in ways that its mind doesn’t choose, about an aging rocker, about an addict who seems on the verge of using again.
Before he gets to Europe to try to find Lou (Cooke), Ruben has sold absolutely everything for his cochlear implants. The RV is gone, as well as all the special equipment he kept there for his music. The implants, as he was warned by a doctor earlier in the film, are no replacement for his ears. But rashly, seeing Lou perform in a video he was never supposed to have seen, he has given up everything in this desperate push to get his life back to the way it was before he came to the shelter. Fittingly for an addict, it’s a decision for a quick fix; just as appropriately, that fix is not what he hoped for. It’s not enough. The cochlear implants allow him to hear but not to hear well. Ahmed gives Ruben that incredible joy to be able to hear something, anything, after a month of silence; it is about as glad a look as we see on his face throughout the entire movie. It lasts for a moment; he hears the garbled words, how syllables will come through cleanly but not whole sentences, like the entire planet is sending him signals via radio that he’s driving away from. Sound of Metal does a wonderful job with its sound mixing, allowing us to hear what Ruben is hearing during key scenes. While I don’t think that Sound of Metal is going to get called “cinematic” by the standards of Nomadland (“visually beautiful”) or Trial of the Chicago 7 (as a synonym for “theatrical,” which in this case just means “ranging and big”), I do think that this movie is cinematic in the only way that matters. It is working on a level, in that scene where Ruben test drives those cochlear implants and feels just how insufficient they are, that only works through movies. We might be able to hear that kind of sound in music, and we could understand that frustration and letdown and fear in a novel, but only a movie can give us both in that same instant. It’s a wonderful scene, no matter how clear it was from the first ten minutes of the movie that we’d get to it in the final half-hour.
With that scene in mind, putting him in Paris after sending him on a road trip throughout the United States makes a fair bit of sense. Although we find out in a conversation with Lou’s father, Richard (Mathieu Amalric), that Ruben moved around a lot as a kid because his mother was a military nurse, Paris is still basically new to him. The United States, where we’ve seen him drive that Airstream about through countless towns with basically indistinguishable sights from the interstate, is familiar. (It’s a small line of dialogue, but it’s hardly a throwaway; there’s a nice connection between nostalgia and what he’s made himself comfortable with as an adult.) Now with his close haircut and his implants, he is a different man for the second time, a twist on a twist. The heavy metal drummer has yielded to a man coming to terms with his deafness has yielded to a man who is rejecting it with every tool he can make available to him, and that final version has taken himself across an ocean to show how much he’s changed. But in Paris, Lou has changed as well. The long-haired, pale-eyebrowed screecher is now sporting eyebrows that match an au courant haircut. When she sings while her father accompanies her, it’s in a thin and childishly precise French rather than the heaven knows what language of metal, where volume replaces phonemes. She is as different as Ruben, and standing back from the piano a little ways he can see it, and more importantly he knows how little he fits into her world now. He can hear it too, because he cannot really hear it. It will come through clearly and then the fuzz or the feedback will start again, so suddenly that it makes him move his head down with an instantaneousness I typically associate with pain.
Later that night, Lou comes to his bed. They go through some motions until Lou reaches for some water, and then the two of them come to an understanding. It’s over but without prejudice. There were seasons where they needed one another, and those seasons have passed. It’s a scene where they even say stuff to one another that sounds painfully trite after you think about it but which is entirely sufficient in the moment; in other words, it’s fairly realistic. Lou, echoing something her father said earlier, tells Ruben saved her life. Ruben, we know, has been off the hard drugs for four years because of Lou. As they hold each other in that bed, knowing that a different kind of intimacy between them went away forever when Lou got a ride away from the shelter where she left Ruben, there’s an honest tenderness we can see. Whether or not you think this scene should be set in France or in like, upstate New York is to some extent a matter of preference. I think putting this scene across an ocean is essential, sort of the way that the Dodsworths would never have considered a divorce if they’d stayed in Zenith or how the man and the wife of Sunrise could never have fallen in love again if they’d stayed off the lake. In Texas or California, Arizona or Virginia, Ruben would reach for something he knew and felt safe with. In Paris, with the cochlear implants in his head and a woman who could blend in with the other nice ladies at a Macy’s, there’s no place for Ruben to fall back on what he knows or for the sensations that he craves. A new place can transform him again, as it does when he hears the bells discordant, removes the implants, and prefers the silence instead.