A drummer suddenly loses his hearing.
Directed by Darius Marder
Starring Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, and Paul Raci
Review by Jon Kissel
When the rush to cochlear implants falls apart due to lack of funds for an uncovered procedure, Ruben’s left to no alternative but a kind of commune for deaf people. Here, he meets group leader Joe (Paul Raci), the one person who Ruben will not be able to bowl over. The serene Joe is the entry point into deaf culture and potentially a new kind of living for Ruben. The commune runs a school where Ruben could teach music and learn sign language alongside the kids. It’s in a forest, implying life would be slower and have more rural stakes. Ruben would be around people who know exactly what he’s going through and can demonstrate that living as a deaf person is far from the death sentence Ruben fears it to be.
The conflict at the commune arises from philosophical debates around cochlear implants, a debate I remember being introduced during the first several seasons of ER. Dr. Benton’s son was born deaf, and, being a hotshot surgeon, he immediately wanted to hand his kid off to another surgeon and fix the problem. As a teenager, this sounded like the exact right solution, but the show introduced the idea of the deaf community’s resistance to cochlear implants as a kind of erasure. A culture, specifically a language, has necessarily arisen around deaf people. Put cochlear implants in everyone and the culture disappears. What I don’t remember ER doing is actually demonstrating what the effect of an implant would be. Marder’s technical achievement in Sound of Metal is to sonically put the viewer in Ruben’s head, letting them hear what it’s like as he gets tinnitus and then muffled incoherence, and ultimately, what the implant sounds like. That kind of uncomfortable distortion from an impressive technology that doesn’t seem to be there yet is the most effective argument against implants, and Joe, in perhaps the film’s best scene, makes a pretty good one, too.
After Ruben gets his implants, his continued existence at the commune is impossible. All the beautiful interactions and moments he was having with the kids, the voiceless yet lively ASL banter around the dinner table, the exercises that Ruben never fully bought into, it all has to go away. A tearful Joe explains that, in so many words, the Daredevil mythos is kind of correct. The subtraction of something can indeed open up new sensory avenues, and while Ruben isn’t going to get radar powers, he could gain the ability to quiet himself and experience, in Joe’s words, a moment of stillness. Ruben has plainly traded his drug addiction for a codependent relationship with Lou, and he’s just as single-minded in getting back to her as he might’ve been for heroin or meth. Joe is advocating healing that single-mindedness, and Ruben’s just not there yet. Life is frequently about moving from one sustaining moment of joy or peace to another, thus allowing the mundane or the irritating in between to be tolerable, but Ruben is still stuck in his old, dead life that can now only provide frustration and failure.
Ruben tells Joe that he can’t handle the idea of being insignificant or small, and he can only imagine a musician career as the way to avoid that. He also implies that he’ll be less-than as a deaf person, and neither is something that Joe has much time for. One of the most impactful and aspirational characters in recent film is Louis Garrel’s character in 2019’s Little Women, who effortlessly bats away Jo March’s insults about how he’ll be forgotten. He knows exactly who he is and where his talents lie, and he’s perfectly content with them. The search for grandeur or some kind of validation is a road to nowhere. It’s only a quirk of insurance policy that forces Ruben to take the intermediate step at the commune. A more generous health care plan would’ve put implants in his head without any of the just-as-vital work that Joe attempts to do with him. Ruben has to be cured of his fear of insignificance. Marder and Ahmed and Cooke and Raci are people who live in public, and so is Garrel for that matter, but the movie they’ve made together emphasizes a dignity available to everyone if they’ll only let themselves be still and find the kind of peace that aspirational thinking makes impossible. After a year where the world had its own restrictions and recalculations forced upon it by external factors, some changes to our collective thinking before the next big factor rolls in might be appropriate, instead of sticking to the loud, abrasive, hand-to-mouth path we’ve been chugging along on. A-