Ruben has been on the run for a long time. No one becomes a heroin addict unless there’s something too painful inside for him to stop, for even a moment, to hear (or feel). So, Ruben runs – with drugs, frantic hard metal drumming, and in his desperate love for his singer-girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, with Riz Ahmed in the lead role, takes us on a journey like no other; the journey of a man who’s faced with finding the silence inside, a silence that might take him to his real self, if he can let it.
Ways to Run
There are many ways to run from yourself; away from something much too painful to stop and feel. We don’t know for sure what that is for Ruben, but we could guess. His mom was a Military nurse. He didn’t know his dad. They moved around a lot. It’s likely he never had a secure base of love or friendship.
When you’re insecure about love, scared all the time of failure or rejection, drugs are a tempting escape. When you’re high, you don’t feel. Or your feelings are so altered that you think you feel much better than you do. Cutting is another way to stop your feelings. Your focus is on physical pain, not emotional. Lou is a cutter, probably an addict too.
Lou’s mom left her dad and then she lost her mom to suicide. Ruben and Lou desperately need each other. They have no one else. Living in the oneness of their love and music, in their cozy Airstream RV, theirs is a certain kind of bliss, away from the realities of their inner lives and pasts.
As Lou sleeps, Ruben plays Country/Blues, cooks up a green smoothie and healthy breakfast. They dance together in the narrow spaces inside. They’re happy. Love can be another sort of drug. Nothing interferes. Until it does.
A Tragic Loss
Ruben’s a serious drummer. He and singer-Lou are a heavy metal band of two. On tour in Missouri, while the crowd roars, Ruben’s hearing suddenly goes in and out. He tries everything to pop his ears. At a pharmacy, he can’t even hear what the pharmacist says.
“Gotta see a doctor. He can see you now.” The audiology report comes back with 28% hearing in his right ear and 24% in his left. And, even that is failing fast. “How do I get it back?” “The hearing you’ve lost is not coming back, avoid loud noises.” What?!
Ruben has to play to earn the $40 – $80, 000 for implant surgery. It’s his only hope, and he has no idea it isn’t a cure. Lou sings, Ruben plays. He’s “saved himself” with stubbornness before. But he can’t hear and runs off the stage. Lou follows. When he tells her what’s happening, she says: “You can’t play, it isn’t safe.” He fights her.
They call Hector, Ruben’s sponsor, at least Lou does. Soon they’re driving through beautiful country to a place Hector tells them to go for help. They’re met by Joe (Paul Raci), the leader of a sober program for deaf addicts. Joe reads lips.
Joe’s an alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. And, his wife, his kids, everything – to beer, not deafness. He’s dedicated to helping others not do the same.
Yet, there is loss in losing your hearing and your music. And, now, because Ruben must stay in this program alone, he’s terrified of losing Lou to his desperate need for help.
It’s not easy to allow help when you’ve turned to drugs, music, and love to silence all your troubling feelings. It’s especially not easy when Joe tells Ruben that implants aren’t the answer: “We’re looking for a solution to this (taps his head), not this (points to his ears).” Ruben must commit to the program, learn sign language, and Lou can’t stay.
Lou’s face looks terrified, a fear that matches Ruben’s. They only have each other, and Lou has nowhere else to go where she feels safe. But, when Ruben freaks out and starts breaking things, saying: “I’m not going back to that place. What I need is a gun in my mouth,” she tells him he must. She makes a call and bravely heads for the airport.
Ruben can’t lose her. He’s scared: “I need more of a plan, Lou. You hurt yourself, I hurt myself. You gotta promise. Wait for me. You’re my heart. You gotta wait for me.”
Ruben’s alone, despondent, and helpless. He goes back to Joe. Joe’s goal for Ruben: “Learn how to be deaf.” Can he? He learns sign language, studies with teacher Diane’s (Lauren Ridloff) kids, teaches them to drum, makes a friend, Jenn (Chelsea Lee). He even starts to laugh. Yet, he sneaks to look on Joe’s computer for Lou.
Joe tries to teach him: sit in a room, with only coffee, a donut, pen and paper, and mostly, just himself. “It doesn’t matter what you write. Don’t stop, keep writing until you can sit again.” There’s much to learn about silence.
Stillness can be scary when you’ve been running your whole life. Sitting in silence brings up feelings you don’t yet want to feel.
Power of Silence in Sound of Metal
He tries to follow Joe’s instructions. But Ruben isn’t used to listening to himself, without judgment. The first day, he smashes his donut. And, he yells at himself: “Stupid … you fucking idiot.” He paces.
Yet, something starts to change when he feels the music of vibrations. He “drums” with a kid on a slide, each speaking to the other through Ruben’s old music. Joe says he’s become a valued part of the community and invites Ruben to stay and work.
Yet, when it comes right down to it, he can’t stop wanting Lou and his old life. He finds her on Instagram making an album and feels left behind. That’s more than he can stand. He gets Jenn to help him, against her better judgment, to sell his RV and all his musical equipment. Writing a note to Joe – Ruben leaves to get the implant surgery he thinks is a cure.
Afterward, he tells Joe: “I have to save my life. No one else will. If I disappear, who cares? No one cares.” This is a very old feeling and it’s one reason he can’t trust help. Joe knows: “Yes, the world can be a damn cruel place, but those moments of stillness, they never abandon you.” But feeling alone, without Lou, he finds his way back.
They love each other, but both have changed. And, the implants aren’t the answer. Nothing sounds the same, the static is hard to bear. They don’t bring back his old life.
The next morning, he sneaks away. Sitting alone on a park bench, Ruben pulls out the connection to his implants. In the stillness, he begins to listen to who he really is. The world looks clearer. He hears not its noise (or the noise inside him) but feels the beauty.