This weekend I finally got around to watching ‘The Sound Of Metal’.
Knowing it’s got Riz Ahmed in it – who grew up in Harrow – not far from where my family live, in combination with the raving reviews and nominations for Golden Globes and Academy Award nominations it’s received – I’ve been meaning to watch it for a while.
And the film didn’t disappoint.
It’s dark, there are flashing lights, and it both aurally and visually, in all of it’s cacophony – sets up the continual juxtaposition and conflict that sits at the heart of the music.
For Ruben, a recovering drug addict (to include Heroin as we later learn), their duo Backgammon which constitutes the seemingly teetering relationship of singer Lou (also a former addict) and drummer Ruben – is his outlet.
His escape, or replacement from the intoxication of drug abuse. Having grown up in a single-parent family travelling all over the States with his mother who was a military nurse and a father that was nowhere to be seen – his instability and chaos never leave the screen.
I was made to feel claustrophobic by Ahmed’s presence, as we watch through his rapidly deteriorating hearing the precariousness of his world – in all its shades.
We go from the screaming concert to Ruben driving him and Lou across the open road through the US touring and living in Ruben’s RV – which they seem to have been living in for an undisclosed amount of time.
Rapidly we’re met with Ruben experiencing a dulling of the sound around him and a sharp ringing, followed by distortion.
And we hear it all, through the brilliant sound design of Darius Marder (director) and his team.
The film should definitely win awards for not only Ahmed and later Paul Raci’s performance (playing recovering alcoholic and deaf Vietnam veteran Joe), but also the use of sound in the movie.
I’m not used to being so taken aback by the use of it in a movie – and the sound of heavy metal thrashing on guitar and microphone is soon muted by Ruben’s new world of silence.
We hear his deafness, hear the truth of his hearing, and the noise gets replaced by the energetic bristling of Ruben as he screams into the void of the deaf community, as he screams silently through his eyes at the departure of Lou from his life.
With all of this being said – let’s go over the plot quickly.
We join drummer and former heroin addict Ruben and tormented Lou – a travelling metal duo who are in the middle of a concert to a live audience.
They’ve been together and on the road for around 4 years. Lou meeting Ruben after leaving Paris after her mother died and Ruben began to replace his addiction to heroin with perhaps his addiction (as we come to see) with being on the road with Lou.
Quickly into the film, at preparations for a 2nd gig we see Ruben begin to go through his first hearing problems. We experience the aural sensation of temporary deafness alongside him.
This has come after we see Ruben and Lou in their RV travelling along the highway and then pulling up to sleep outside their next venue. They seem to be very much in love and connected.
Ruben manages to struggle through the concert but the next morning in the RV, we discover the extent of his deafness – which is quite significant. He visits a pharmacist who refers him immediately to a hearing doctor.
Ruben has a hearing test – and here we discover that Ruben has lost 80% of his hearing and it continues to deteriorate. Over the next few days or even hours he may lose even more/rest of it.
As Ruben asks – ‘ok when will it comes back?’ or ‘how do we get it back?’ – it becomes apparent that Ruben isn’t going to get it back, and life could be forever different now.
Ruben enquires into a surgical solution, and is told there ‘is a way’ to get his hearing back – but it’ll cost more than $40,000.
It’s unclear whether the hearing loss comes from his exposure to loud noises (which we assume it does with headphones in his ear the whole time during concerts and likely practice) or some kind of auto-immune responses.
In either case, Ruben ignores the advice and attempts to continue playing at the concert that same evening.
This is an abject failure and we see Reuben storm out of the concert and then break down. As Lou confronts him – we witness her realisation of his deafness and from here the movie takes a sharp turn.
Aurally, what has been a loud and explosive start then takes us down a different path as now Ruben and Lou’s relationship is thrust into the spotlight.
Having seen Ruben smoke a cigarette, Lou calls his sponsor Hector (who presumably helped him through his drug recovery) and explains the situation to him. Ruben can’t hear anything and Lou manages the whole situation.
As it turns out – Hector knows a place that they can see Ruben and is for ‘people like him’. We see Ruben tear apart some of the music equipment in their RV and try and cope with what has just happened.
And then we see them drive to this ‘place’.
The whole atmosphere and tone of the movie have changed.
It’s here we enter the second phase of the movie as Ruben and Lou pull up to a sanctuary for those who have gone deaf but are also recovering addicts.
This is where we meet Joe (Paul Raci) – the former Vietnam Vet who went deaf and is a recovering alcoholic.
This is where the plot ultimately shifts and we see Lou and Ruben tearfully separate and Ruben begins his journey at the sanctuary that is one of trying to cope with his newfound silence; as well as his inner demons.
He joins a children’s class and with them and the teacher Diane (Lauren Ridloff) learns to be deaf. The children come to grow very fond of him over time and ultimately Joe offers a way for him to say on with their community in a paid position.
Ruben didn’t have the money to pay for his time at the sanctuary – but the Church has been able to support him through this time.
We see Ruben still resisting his newfound world as he begins to learn sign language and communicate with the other addicts at the sanctuary. Joe recognises he is still struggling so asks him to sit in an empty room each morning and just to write.
To write whatever is on his mind – and initially we see how much Ruben struggles with this as he screams into the silent world they live in before he begins to write incessantly.
Ruben from time to time sneaks into Joe’s office so he can check email and check in on Lou to see what’s happening. She has moved back to Paris to live with her father, and initially send Ruben an email expressing how much she misses him and hope he’s staying strong.
He then sees her experimenting with new music in Paris – and at this point resolves to solve things all by himself.
He ultimately sells all of his equipment and the RV to raise the $40,000 needed to have surgery. Leaving the camp, he then has the procedure and then returns to camp.
There’s a crushing scene with Joe as Ruben returns and Joe’s surprised to see him – and Ruben explains he’s had the surgery, he sold the RV, he’s waiting for the machine to be activated (they need to wait for one month) – and can he stay with them and can he borrow some money.
Joe will say no to both as his camp is founded upon the idea that deafness is not seen as a disability. Ruben’s staying would ride against that, and therefore he cannot give him anyway money and he cannot stay.
This is the last we see of Joe as Ruben leaves the camps and stays in a motel for one month waiting for his implants to be ready.
Judgement day, when Ruben visits the doctor to have his implants turned on is met by him with crushing disappointment as he discovers that he can certainly hear again – but it will never be like before.
It’s tinny, distorted and nothing like those without deafness hear. The doctor explains to Ruben candidly that he must recognise that it will not be like before – and that he is still deaf and the mind is being tricked into thinking that he can still hear through sending electrical impulses.
Ruben ultimately makes his way to Paris to find Lou. He meets with his father whilst they await Lou’s return – and his father confesses that at the time he resented Ruben for taking his daughter away but confesses that now (now that she’s back with him) he is thankful to Ruben that he was able to be there for her.
We listen to much of this through the ears of Ruben and his cochlear implants – and it’s a relatively unpleasant experience for us.
This is only exacerbated later in the evening upon Lou’s return and we begin to see the changes in her.
She’s got settled living in Paris now and has a party for her father’s birthday to prepare for. On that same evening, we see how much their worlds have changed.
Lou sings in French whilst her father plays the piano in a Tuxedo and Ruben is unable to hear the signing through his implants – he just can’t make anything out.
And then later upon attempting to meet some of Lou’s party guests – Ruben is unable to hear them in the group and Lou awkwardly and quickly suggests he go and get some food.
Things come to a head that evening when they lay in bed and Ruben discusses getting back on tour and the album and all – and sees Lou anxiously scratch herself.
It’s at that moment he stops and realises it’s the prospect of going on the road again that is causing this anxiety. Anxiety upon her mother’s passing 4 years ago just before they met, and when Ruben was recovering from his heroin addiction (it’s no surprise they met when they did).
It’s at the moment we recognise that their paths have changed.
Ruben tells her ‘you saved me Lou’ and she says tearfully to him ‘you saved me too Ruben’.
And these are their final words to each other.
The scene cuts to the next morning and quietly, Ruben gets dressed and leaves with his bag back out into the Parisian streets.
We see him sat down on a bench listening through his implants to the distorted chaos around him. And this is where we leave Ruben, as he takes his hearing aids off and finally, as Joe always suggested – finds his own inner stillness…
And the movie cuts to a close.
What an amazing movie. I was sucked in within moments of Ruben going deaf and knew that this was a movie I’d need to sit down for and was one well worth watching.
It doesn’t disappoint as we grapple with going deaf, what it’s like to live in that world and watching someone who is teetering on the edge of addiction throughout the movie.
Or maybe someone who still clearly is addicted. To Lou and being on the road with her.
Either way – it’s an amazing movie to watch and one that’ll leave its mark upon you!