R for a decent amount of language. Yeah, there's not a lot of audible talking in this movie, but it doesn't meant that the movie isn't afraid to swear. There's also discussion of a history or drug use. The protagonist is also sleeping with his girlfriend, which, you know, he probably shouldn't be doing in a G rated film. R.
DIRECTOR: Darius Marder
I think I need someone to explain this year's Academy Awards like I'm an old person. Okay, an oldER person. I understand why some of the films up for an Academy Award are from 2020 and 2021, based on the fact that the Awards themselves have been delayed to allow for a slower film slate. But why have I been writing about films from 2019? Okay, I just wanted to put that out there. For my five readers, Google it for me.
It's so odd that I hadn't heard of this one until the Academy Awards because I wouldn't mind if this won. My wife and I had the epiphany that, for the most part, the Best Picture noms are actually kind of great. It should have been the year that we wrote off decent films, but with stuff like Sound of Metal, Nomadland, and Judas and the Black Messiah, it's actually very impressive. I haven't seen The Father or Minari yet, so for all I know it could be even better than I thought. But I didn't think I would be excited for Sound of Metal based on the description of the movie coupled with the first few minutes of the movie. Death metal, I have to say, has never been my genre. I remember when I was in high school, I had the Spawn soundtrack and I really wanted to like it. That stuff is light compared to what is coming out now. But the movie, considering its title, is actually extremely vulnerable. That's part of the film. It's not the core of the film, by any means, but it is an element. People aren't one thing, which makes the story so much more fascinating.
I adore the title. Sound of Metal implies the protagonist's background as a death metal drummer. In terms of being on the nose, it's great. But then there's the horror of realizing what hearing is like for people with cochlear implants. Yeah, there's a nom for Best Sound and this movie completely deserves it. But Sound of Metal kind of acts as this rallying cry against hope. That sounds bleak and, in many ways, it is extraordinarily hopeless. But the film comes down to philosophy and choice. Ruben represents...a lot. From a critical perspective, Ruben's alcoholism represents his need for control. I want to explore this in a minute. But he's both noble and selfish at the same time. We get frustrated with his obsession with grasping onto the past. But if Ruben was in a different film, we'd be admiring his resilience to get back to his art.
What I'm dancing around is the fact that the protagonist is wonderfully complicated. As a culture, we've probably been a bit too ableist. I can't say that I'm not. The idea of what Ruben is going through in this movie is relatable and the idea of acceptance just seems toxic. So many of us have jobs and passions that use the wide range of senses on a daily basis and simply accepting the loss of one of these senses as giving up. Yet, Marder teases us with the knowledge that the right thing is to abandon control and power for the things that they can control. That motif of alcoholism parallels what Ruben goes through. He tries to be in control of his disability and the world around him. But it is only once Ruben abandons all pretense of control that the world starts gaining a sense of serenity.
He doesn't see that, though, because he is in it. We know that he won't be able to return to the world of drumming with the implants. I even think that Ruben knows this too. But he sacrifices that sense of belonging that he has with the deaf community. I can't help but make the connection to Moses in the Bible. Moses leads the Israelites through the desert. He's told by God to strike the stone to bring forth water. But because Moses doubts God and hits the stone multiple times and is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. The same thing happens to Ruben. Ruben becomes the healthiest he has ever been in the community. Joe invites him to become a leader of the group, continuing to teach deaf students, which gives him value. But Ruben, like Moses, doubts. He takes a rule that seems innocuous enough: this isn't a place for people who can hear. And when he returns, he's not allowed to stay in the Promised Land.
It's such a morally understandable choice. Because Ruben doesn't necessarily see the cochlear implants as something exclusively for him. He views this surgery as a way to get back to Lou. Lou, for all of her understanding, can't help but view Ruben as something as less than what he was before. Joe, on the other hand, views him as something more and bigger. That decision to embrace his deafness is what the community is about. Yet, that really comes down to a matter of faith, doesn't it? (Oh, to have this kind of insight when I was writing for Catholic News Agency!) Joe and the people at the commune probably all could have the surgery that would allow them a sense of normality in the outside world. But they have faith that they are not any less, abandoning the Ableist philosophies that society has bred. There's nothing evil about the surgery. In fact, in a lot of communities, it could be a moral good. But for Ruben, it is an attempt to return to a place of control, a return to his drug addiction.
Ruben is an honorable character throughout. Lou's father even acknowledges that it is easy to view Ruben as a toxic element, considering his tattoos and his self-destructive past. But Ruben is self-actualized in a lot of ways. I'm not saying that he needs to be out there doing his own thing. But he should get credit for thriving as well as he has. But that brings in another theme: the idea of needing help. Ruben is a guy who treads water all the time. Yes, he is more successful than a lot of addicts. I don't think the movie ever shows him at rock bottom. But Ruben was living a life where time was going to be his greatest enemy. We know this because of the peace he gains with the community. And the tone of the cochlear implants acts as the Tower of Babel or the monkey's paw. It is a return to the world of mediocrity. The world, cochlear implants or no, is a sound of metal, overwhelming and sad. It is through the abandoning of one of his senses that Ruben finds the peace that comes with silence. It is the removal of that extra input that allows him to become whole.
As bleak as the ending is, Ruben divided from Lou, it is also incredibly optimistic as well. Ruben, without telegraphing this, finds the value of his own infirmity. By removing the implants at the end and absorbing the silence, it is Ruben accepting himself and accepting the good instead of the evil.
I loved this movie. It was gorgeous, smart, and avoided preachiness all throughout. I hope it wins. But even if it doesn't, it still was a reminder about what cinema can achieve.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.