Directed by Darius Marder, ‘Sound of Metal’ is a work of triumph not just because it resonates with a deep sense of empathy and heart, but also because it has the courage and the good sense to stay away from melodrama and focus on a more pragmatic approach. Riz Ahmed is a revelation in this film, portraying a punk drummer who rapidly loses his hearing abilities and struggles to come to terms with the new realities of his life. While he finds acceptance and even fleeting moments of happiness in a communal existence with other hearing-impaired individuals, his heart still yearns for his music and the girl who was forced to live him behind. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Sound of Metal Plot Synopsis
Ruben (Ahmed) and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are part of a two-piece punk traveling band called Blackgammon. She sings while he plays the drums. Lou has her own share of a complex history that has brought her where she is right now. Ruben’s world begins crumbling after the diagnosis. Raging frustration starts to affect his day-to-day life. Lou is well aware of where this is possibly heading for him. It’s likely not a co-incident that Ruben and Lou have been together for as long as he has been sober. They go to a communal facility run by Joe (Paul Raci), who warns them that his institution is not about curing hearing-impaired people but finding a dignified way of living for them. After an emotional farewell, Lou leaves him there and moves back in with her father in Paris.
The first few days are hard for Ruben. Part of him wants to run away, while another part wants to relapse and begin using drugs again. Battling through his darker emotions, he gradually starts finding meaning in his life in the simplest of exercises that he does with the young children there. After an initial struggle to communicate, Ruben learns the American sign language alongside the younger students, and a whole new world subsequently opens up to him. Suddenly, he finds himself assuming the position of a big brother for a lot of them, drawing tattoos and teaching them how to play the drums. When Joe observes that Ruben has “become very important to a lot of people around here”, there is a deep sense of pride in that statement. Joe knows that the stakes were really high against Ruben, and his success comes despite it.
What Joe, for all his sincerity, fails to grasp is Ruben’s utter desperation to get back to his old life. Although he has endured much in the last few months, he still hasn’t given up on the possibility of full recovery. Despite what the doctors have repeatedly told him, he has held on to the belief that once he gets the surgery for implants, his hearing will return to normal. One day, after he discovers a video clip of Lou on the internet, his deep longing for both her and what she represents returns. He secretly finds an audiologist and sells his RV and all his music gear to raise money for the surgery.
Sound of Metal Ending
When Ruben speaks to Joe about what has happened, the older man is clearly disappointed. Drawing a disturbing comparison, he points out the similarities between the behavior of an addict and Ruben’s actions regarding his relationship with Lou. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable and accurate observation, something the younger man isn’t ready yet to accept. When Ruben asks if he can stay until the implants are activated, Joe is again forced to remind him why the facility exists. It was founded on the principle that deafness is not a handicap. If Joe allows him to stay there, it will send out a convoluted message, especially to the young children who are part of the facility. As Ruben leaves and finds lodging at a motel, he is forced to come to terms with the notion that his own actions have led to this alienation.
When the implants are finally activated, Ruben’s disappointment is palpable. Up until that point, he had somehow held on to the belief that he will get back his full hearing. But the high and screechy sounds he hears from the fully functioning implants finally shatters his delusion, and he is left to wonder about the steep price he has paid for them. But his journey of self-discovery isn’t over yet. There is one more stop until it comes a full circle.
Eventually, Ruben finds his way to Paris, to Lou’s home. He discovers that she is thriving, but she is also very different from the Lou he used to know. The more time he spends with her the more he realizes that he doesn’t have a place in her life any longer. While he was desperately trying to get back to his past, Lou has moved on to her future. For the first time in the course of the film, he accepts the inevitability of change and gracefully decides to walk out of Lou’s life. “You saved me,” he tells her, simply and appreciatively. The next morning, he leaves before she wakes up. Outside, overwhelmed by his emotional turmoil as well as the noises of a busy and bustling city, Ruben takes off the receptors, and everything goes silent. In those moments of impenetrable solitude, he finally discovers the stillness that Joe often speaks about.
Marder ends the movie at this juncture, purposefully and abruptly. Ruben’s future is left to the audience’s imagination. Someday, he just might find his way back to Joe’s facility. After all, the way Joe told him to go doesn’t seem permanent. He just has to make peace with himself first to be accepted back there.
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