Heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone is one half of a metal duo known as Blackgammon. The other member is his girlfriend Lou – the vocalist of the group. They live in an RV, performing gigs while travelling across the United States. Unfortunately for Ruben, a sudden bout of hearing loss puts a damper on their plans. Upon visiting the doctor, it is determined that he can only make out twenty to thirty percent of words being spoken to him. Cochlear implants may save his hearing, but they are not covered by his insurance. The doctor then asks him to do the unthinkable: eliminate all exposure to loud noises to save the scant hearing he has left.
Sound of Metal is an interesting film in that, at its core, it is about addiction, yet its protagonist is never actually seen using drugs. In fact, he has been sober for around four years. Nonetheless, the plot is effected by a kind of self-destructive behavior that can be likened to a drug addiction. Even after being told by the doctors to avoid exposure to loud noises, Ruben continues to perform. It’s not uncommon for recovering drug addicts to develop entirely new habits – the obsessive behavior is still there; it just gets channeled via different outlets. It’s when Ruben is unable to finish one particular gig that Lou stops him dead in his tracks from performing again.
What follows can only be described as an unconventional intervention. Their sponsor, Hector, refers Ruben to a rural shelter for deaf recovering addicts. The community is run by a man named Joe. He himself is a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. This results in a dilemma for Joe, as Lou cannot join the community herself and he is only interested in getting the cochlear implants.
The desire to get these implants creates friction between himself and the deaf people in this community. This is because it is a grave insult to the people there to insinuate that the condition only exists to be fixed. This mirrors the real-life viewpoints of several people who were born deaf. Although they do face numerous challenges as a result of being in a society that assumes all of its members can hear, many of them are perfectly content being deaf. Ruben expressing temporary interest in the community gives off the implication that the deaf people are broken when, to them, it’s the basis of their very identity.
In the end, however, despite making a lot of progress in Joe’s community, Ruben caves in and sells all of his possessions, including the RV, for the implants. Sadly, while the operation is successful, the hearing granted to him by the implants are only a mechanical, tinny parody of the real thing. In doing so, the film’s title gains a second meaning. Those going into the film know it’s about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, but once he receives the cochlear implants, the “sound of metal” permeates and largely overrides his auditory functions.
A common interpretation of Ruben’s story is that it simulates the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first three stages are explored when he continues to perform despite being told not to, smashes his possessions, and sells his RV for the operation respectively. Depression comes in as he realizes he can never return to his previous life. Finally, he reaches acceptance when, after reconnecting with Lou, he removes the implants, seemingly content being deaf.
It must be said that Sound of Metal is a unique film in how it handles its subject matter, but I find it suffers from a few execution issues. To begin with, it’s a bit strange that the debased hearing granted to him by the implants was never properly conveyed to him beforehand by any doctor. The moment that Ruben realizes he won’t be allowed to have his former hearing is meant to be a tremendous shock to both him and the audience, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise in any capacity. Any doctor who wasn’t outright grifting him would have informed him that the implants aren’t capable of restoring his hearing to its original state. It’s possible he was told and didn’t believe them, but the narrative doesn’t make this clear.
I also find that the way the film is presented to be a little inconsistent. The film simulates the effects of being deaf and, later, how one with the cochlear implants would hear, thus presenting the journey from Ruben’s point of view. The ultimate problem is that the narrative too often cops out and presents its scenes with full audio to ensure the audience can follow along. It just seems to me that there could have been more creative ways to get around the protagonist’s inability to hear. For example, they could convey the plot entirely through actions and when Ruben learns sign language, subtitles appear – perhaps by making the words emerge from the gestures.
I get the sense this particular issue stems from the fact that the film was made in four weeks with no more than two attempts at shooting per scene. If the film had a larger budget or a greater amount of production time, these flaws could’ve been ironed out. As it stands, it feels as though the production never fully left the drafting phase. Sound of Metal does fare better than certain contemporary big-budget productions in a similar situation by virtue of featuring a comparatively simple plot, but one should not rely on serendipitous factors such as that when seeing the production through.
Darius Marder deserves a lot of credit for shedding light on a community the average person has likely never heard of. Many films dealing with a disability seem to read like a lament – that the deaf are fundamentally broken. In real life, there are plenty of people who are perfectly fine with being deaf and to insinuate that their affliction needs to be fixed is highly condescending. With Sound of Metal, Mr. Marder actively rebels against that interpretation by showcasing the strong community the deaf have formed, using their stories as a foil to the protagonist’s addictive behavior.
Now, does all of this translate into an essential viewing experience? It depends. In order to get anything out of Sound of Metal, you do have to know what, exactly, you’re signing on for. It’s entirely possible to go into this film expecting it to be about the metal music scene when, in reality, it only plays an extremely tangential role in the overarching narrative. What it’s actually about is good, but its meandering nature and lack of a strong resolution does render the narrative a bit aimless. Moreover, the film was made on very tight budget in four weeks with Mr. Marder only shooting two takes per scene, and to be perfectly frank, it shows. Still, it is remarkable that a film made under those circumstances manages to outshine countless pieces of big-budget Hollywood schlock – the creators of which had no excuse at all for how poorly they turned out. Therefore, if you can get past its shortcomings, you may find watching Sound of Metal worthwhile.
Final Score: 6/10