Release Date: November 20, 2020
Director: Darius Marder | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 9.5/10
We live in a Western world overrun by noise. Our ears and our eyes are bombarded by voices, by images, by information, often leaving us with a spirit of stated or unstated discontent. We allow these voices to define our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. And in spite this incessant increase of excess, it seems what we actually need is nothing; indeed, the deep irony of our day is that our access to more leaves us longing for less. The more time we spend away from silence, the more distant we feel from our true selves. As Thomas Merton once put it:
“The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude, which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living. Man cannot be happy for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. If man is exiled constantly from his own home, locked out of his spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person.” –The Silent Life, p. 166
We need reminders of the silence, that we might be pulled back into the peace of our true selves. This is precisely the sort of reminder we find in Darius Marder’s excellent work, Sound of Metal, a harrowing and heartening tale of the confounding reality that in losing everything, we might just find the nothing we had longed for from the start.
The film opens with the assaulting feedback of a roaring electric guitar, narrating the deeply focused and still Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer in the two-piece metal band Blackgammon. Within minutes, screeching vocals from Lou (Olivia Cooke)–the other half of Blackgammon and girlfriend to Ruben–ring aloud to a small venue of fans, joined promptly by the heart-thumping and adrenaline-pumping rhythms arising from Ruben’s drum kit. Noise defines this movie from the start.
We soon find that Ruben and Lou live the modest, RV-bound life of an average American rock band, travelling from town to town and gigging their way to a living, and we receive this exposition almost entirely through sound. Immediately following the raucous introduction of the band in their performance, we are given a wordless depiction of Ruben’s morning routine. Yet the noises that fill his life here are just as obvious to the audience as the abrasive music that filled the opening. The dripping of coffee, the inhale-exhale rhythms of pushups, the blending of a breakfast smoothie – by using sound to communicate the character of Ruben, the film invites the audience into a deeper awareness of how central and overlooked sound is within the base elements that sustain our lives.
This expert sound work–for which the film won one of its two Academy Awards–does not stand out solely for its technical wizardry, however. It works as a character-deepening tool, bringing the audience into the life and mind of Ruben in particular. About ten minutes into the film’s roughly two hour runtime, Ruben awakens to something we have yet to hear: dull silence. A sudden and unseen tragedy has struck, as Ruben has lost his ability to hear, and it quickly becomes clear that much of Ruben’s life will, by necessity, follow his ears in fading away. Their tour takes a detour. His relationship with Lou becomes strained. His own satisfaction with life frustratingly disappears. All the while we as the audience are pulled in and out of Ruben’s perspective, at times unable to hear the dialogue happening around him. In this way, we begin to feel the weight of this loss alongside him, and the desperation that comes with the realization that, in a moment, the noises that so comfortably defined us can suddenly and unexpectedly be stripped away.
Ruben’s distress leads him to doctors, who mention the possibility of an expensive surgery he can undergo to heal his hearing, and he immediately begins scheming to afford this procedure. Meanwhile, in order to function within his new life, he chooses to reside in a deaf community led by Joe (Paul Raci). Here he begins to learn–slowly and frustratingly–what acceptance of his new, deaf life looks like. While he shows immense growth in this community of people, who affirm his inherent value and identity independent of his crumbled career and life, Ruben longs desperately for his hearing to return, unable to live with the silence that now surrounds him.
At one point, Joe prompts Ruben to set aside times of silence to begin his mornings, with only coffee, a doughnut, a pencil and paper to guide him. Ruben’s response is one of infuriation, and upon entering a room devoted to the elimination of noise, he melts down in angry frustration, unable to bare the plain reality of his life as he longs desperately for the very things which factored into his deafness in the first place.
It is in his inability to simply “be,” Ruben’s unrelenting need for the noise, that Marder expertly turns his methodically paced tale in on us. Through flurries of personal and reflective close-ups and extended sequences of silence, Ruben’s experience connects to our own, forcing us to ask ourselves: what sort of voices are defining our lives? What would we do if they were suddenly taken away? Who are we, independent of the noise?
In this way, Sound of Metal teaches all of us the discipline of silence in a loud world; it teaches us that our true identities transcend the noise around us, that in encountering the silence, we are brought into a fuller understanding of ourselves and an encounter with the “Kingdom of God,” as Joe explains to Ruben. Indeed, this film seems a worthy parable of the story that Christians call the Gospel – a tale of a dead life constantly beckoning us backward, and a new life ready to burst forth, if only we would admit our frailty and allow ourselves to be healed amidst a community of people doing the same. Marder’s work leads us, intimately and confidently, into the silence of the Divine; the only thing left for us to do is listen.