Is healing a return to what came before, or is it finding life anew? In Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, a man has to decide what he will accept in his life that has been turned upside down. He discovers that what he thinks will make him whole may not be as good as he hopes, but he also discovers that there are gifts that he can tap into that will bring him peace and joy.
Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) travel the country as the band Blackgammon, a punk metal band. Ruben plays the drums. Their trademark is that they are LOUD. Yet, when in private, they listen to much softer music. One day Ruben suddenly loses his hearing. When he goes to a doctor, the news is not good. It will not be coming back.
When Lou sees that he is beginning to return to an addict’s behavior pattern, she takes him to a farm where there is a community of deaf addicts in recovery. The community is led by Joe (Paul Raci), an alcoholic who lost his hearing in Vietnam. It is a hard transition for Ruben. When he comes into the community, he is hyper-isolated. He can’t understand them when they sign. They can’t understand him when he speaks. He is more interested in getting his hearing back (through very expensive cochlear implants) than adapting to the world as a deaf person. His goals are different than those around him.
In time, Ruben begins to learn to sign. He also begins teaching deaf children to play drums. But all the while, he wants more. He is always busy. He fixes things around the farm. But all of that is a way to avoid his feelings. Joe notes that his refusal to accept his situation is very much the behavior of an addict. Joe gives him an assignment: to go into a room with just a pencil and paper and write. He can write anything. It doesn’t have to be a story or even sentences. Just write and write and write.
The addictive behavior that Joe notes is interesting. It is not only the danger of drugs that Ruben must deal with, but the hearing life that he is trying to hold on to. It is hard to move forward when tied to the past. His desire to hear again—at any cost—is a barrier to finding something new.
I need to admit that when I first read the synopsis of the film as I prepared for AFI Fest, it wasn’t high on my list. But when I heard others who had seen it earlier rave about it, I made sure in include it in my schedule. It turned out to be one of my favorites of the festival. It is extremely engaging on an emotional level. Ruben struggles throughout the film, not just with his hearing loss and his addictions, but against a future he cannot see. Even as he begins to have some growth, he continues to be deeply troubled.
We also learn that this is in reality a spiritual struggle. That epiphany comes when Joe tells Ruben that he too needs to spend time writing and writing. When he can write no more, and there are moments of stillness, “that place is the Kingdom of God”.
That idea reminded me of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. When the prophet felt overwhelmed by his struggle with King Ahab, he went to the wilderness to find God. He wanted to whine a bit. As he waited for God a mighty wind that could break rocks came, but God wasn’t in the wind. Neither was God in the great earthquake or the fire that followed. But then there was “a sound of sheer silence. There the voice of God spoke to him.
We often overlook the spiritual aspects of the struggles we have—whether it is addiction, illness, or the emotional struggle of the COVID pandemic. We want things to be “normal”. We want our pain to end. We think if we do something, or try harder, things will get better. But sometimes, what is really needed is to stop and wait for the voice of God that comes in the stillness.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime Video beginning December 4th, 2020