The Sound of Metal
One Liner Review:
A very indie movie about a drummer struggling with hearing loss and seeking out different options for bettering his problem, the story is interesting, but the pace is a little slow and the ending leaves the viewer somewhat unsatisfied.
Here’s a movie that chronicles the discovery by a musician that he is losing his hearing, all the way through the different options he pursues to rectify the situation. Rhiz Ahmed plays Ruben, a drummer for a heavy metal rock group who notices the problem all of a sudden and doesn’t have any idea how to handle it. We watch as Ruben goes for tests and discussions and eventually winds up at a compound and school for people who are deaf. All of this works and is interesting. But then the movie slows down. There’s no real conflict at the compound, which means it’s not exactly eventful. And then the ending drags on and doesn’t really resolve the situation in a way that concludes what will happen to the character. The movie is pretty good simply because of the fantastic performances and ways that it details a pretty unique story, but by the end we are definitely left wanting a little more.
Sound of Metal is an unusual movie. It’s a movie that has a very tame and scaled back story compared to what we’re used to seeing, and yet does cover some pretty deep territory. The movie is about a man named Ruben (played by the terrific Riz Ahmed,) who suddenly realizes that he’s going def. Ruben is a drummer for a two-person rock n roll punk band. The other member of the band is the singer, and Ruben’s longtime girlfriend, Lou. The two of them aren’t exactly big time, but they’re big enough to keep doing what they’re doing, and to enjoy it. They travel together in an RV, playing different gigs around the country, booking dates and venues and then showing up to perform. All seems great for these two until the hearing issues start kicking in.
When we first meet the characters, we experience a little bit of their lives and daily routines. They have made their RV into more of a home than a vehicle, which means there’s a couch for the passenger seat, right up there by the dashboard, next to the drivers seat. That way the passenger can rest and relax on a couch while keeping the driver company (despite it not exactly being safe – no seat belt.) This little detail helps us start to know a little bit about these characters. They live on the edge. Ruben makes green drink shakes in a blender and does workouts including squats and sit-ups. Is he doing these things because he’s disciplined or because he wants to avoid falling into a pattern of doing something else? Maybe a little bit of both.
One day Ruben realizes that he can’t hear much. He goes to a local pharmacy, and tries talking to the pharmacist about it. We hear things mostly from Ruben’s perspective, which means we don’t really hear much. Ruben’s attempts at a conversation with the man don’t go well, and on occasion we can hear snippets of what the pharmacist is saying to someone on the phone, telling the person that he’s trying to talk to Ruben and that Ruben can’t hear what he’s saying. This results in Ruben being sent to a specialist doctor who says that he can see Ruben right now.
The doctor runs tests on Ruben’s hearing, with Ruben sitting in a booth, looking through a glass screen at the doctor, while wearing headphones. We hear things from the doctors point of view now, which means we hear the correct words and how many of them Ruben gets wrong. It’s interesting to watch the way Ruben sort of transforms during the course of this scene. He goes from being confident that he knows the words (even though he is getting them all completely wrong,) to not quite as confident, to giving up and wanting to even try to say the words back at all. The doctor tells Ruben that he is only hearing about twenty percent of the words correctly, and that their goal now is not to get the hearing back that he lost, it’s to preserve the hearing that Ruben has left. That doesn’t exactly sound ideal to Ruben. The doctor does mention another option though… cochlear implants. The only problem there is that they are extremely expensive.
Ruben’s manager finds him a school for the def not too far away where Ruben can stay and learn. An older man named Joe provides that tenants room and board, and everything is paid for as the people who come there are sponsored by the local Church. It doesn’t even matter that Ruben is not religious and has no affiliation with the Church. But staying there means giving up tons of liberties. It means that Ruben will be cut off from the outside world and not allowed to leave the compound. It also means that he will have to turn in the keys to his RV and also to turn over his cell phone. When Ruben hears all this, he gets up and leaves. He was willing to give the program a try by living in his RV and just showing up for classes and meals, but the strict rules don’t exactly jive with his style.
Ruben and Lou leave the compound. This is something that Ruben has to do on his own, and so it’s really his decision. Lou wants him to do it, of course, but there’s no pushing him into it. And so she supports him by leaving with him. But then the next morning, Ruben wakes up and as a freakout, banging things around in their RV. This makes Lou realize that Ruben needs to get help, and so she encourages him to go back. Ruben reluctantly agrees, and that first day there, he meets his much older roommate and then is confronted by Joe who demands Ruben turns over his keys and phone.
Joe runs a tight ship, including assigning jobs and roles for each person who lives there to do each day. There’s a big white board where he writes everyone’s name and what that person’s responsibility is for the day. For Ruben, Joe just writes, “learn how to be def.” Ruben doesn’t like this. He wants a job like everyone else, and wants to feel useful. One morning, he gets up early and goes outside to work on fixing a hole in the roof. Joe comes out and finds him and is not pleased. He tells Ruben that Ruben does not need to fix anything there. And then he gives Ruben as assignment. Each morning when Ruben wakes up from now on, there will be coffee waiting for him. Ruben should take that coffee and go to a designated room where he can just sit there. If at any point, Ruben feels like he cannot sit there anymore without doing anything, there will be a notepad and a pen there, on a table, and Ruben can just write. Anything he wants to write about. Ruben doesn’t like this at all. When he gets into the room and is confronted by the emptiness and seclusion, he freaks out, first pounding his doughnut and then pounding the wall. To him, this feels like solitary in a prison.
Things get better for Ruben as he learns to adopt and begins to understand sign language. He takes classes at a school for the def with kids and he has meal with the group of adults who live at Joe’s house. Ruben also attends meetings with these adults. He participates in games and hikes with the kids and competitions with the adults, such as who can sign the alphabet faster. Ruben begins to fit in and make friends. It gets to the point where Joe even offers Ruben a permanent position there. And then Ruben goes on the internet and sees a video of Lou in Paris playing music without him. He thought she was going to wait for him, and that all this time she was just doing nothing. Now it seems like she is moving on with her life.
This drives Ruben crazy. He leaves Joe’s compound, sells his RV and all of his possessions, and gets the cochlear implants after all. Then he shows back up at the compound, and Joe tells Ruben that he needs to leave. The cochlear implants go against what they are trying to do there, which is to teach young people that being deaf is not a handicap, and is something that can be overcome. At this point, Ruben heads off to Belgium in search of Lou. First, he shows up at her father’s place. Then he sits down for a conversation with the father, and eventually Lou shows up. This leads us to the end of the movie, with the final resolutions between Ruben and Lou, and then Ruben’s final decision. And it is left kind of open. Meaning there isn’t really an ending. Without giving away what happens, let’s just say whatever Ruben’s next move is, and whatever he plans to do next with his life is not made clear, which is a bit of a problem. One can assume what he probably does, but it might have been nice if the movie gave us a solid clue.
Overall The Sound of Metal is an interesting movie, but it’s also a bit too slow and anti-climactic. It doesn’t help that the final act is the one that seems to be the most stretched out and uneventful as we sit through things like a dull performance between Lou and her father in front of a lot of party guests. The story of Ruben is the one that’s most interesting, and it’s that story that really could have used a solid ending. The ideas here, about a guy finding different ways to deal with his problem, are pretty great. And it’s also cool that Ruben exhausts all possibilities and tries a little of both approaches. But there needed to be a little more. Maybe more conflict at the school. Not a whole lot, but just something. Maybe more of a confrontation with Joe, after Ruben breaks the policy of the compound. There is no question that the performances here are great (Rhiz Ahmed and Paul Raci (who plays Joe,) are both nominated for Oscars, but the movie itself is just okay. Interesting, but not eventful or fulfilling enough. Most of the movie works, but the ending doesn’t give us the kind of resolution we need.