“Sound of Metal” is an uncomfortable and all too realistic look at obsession and addiction

If you haven’t seen “Sound of Metal” yet, then I implore you to stop reading and to go watch it. You’ll have to be an Amazon Prime Member as it is an Amazon Prime exclusive movie, but they offer enough free trials where you might be able to watch it for free.

I recently sat down to watch it, somewhat hesitantly as it didn’t seem like my type of film. It seemed very artsy and not quite about metal, which as a metal fun is disappointing. But after reading the rave reviews that people gave the film, more specifically, the lead actor Riz Ahmed who plays Ruben, I figured that the least I could do to show respect for the arts was to sit down for 2 hours and to not think about anything but what was in front of me.

Sometimes you watch a film or a portrayal and without noticing it, it leaves a subtle imprint on your life. This film does just that and does it in a powerful way that leaves you thinking long after the credits roll to an end about your own life and the things that we tend to cling to.

The film starts off by introducing the main character Ruben, played by Ahmed, as a stereotypical blonde haired, 6 pack toting, metal drummer with a propensity for random tattoos and a tour bus. He travels the road with his girlfriend and musical companion Lou, played wonderfully by Olivia Cooke. The dreams of a young musician personified on screen no doubt. It’s a life that many of us wanted when we were younger, but maybe not so much as we get older and turn towards building familial structures.

Early on we learn that Ruben is a recovering addict who works daily to keep his demons at bay by working out, eating healthy and maintaining a PMA (positive mental attitude) while waking up at the crack of dawn. Truthfully, it parallels what many of us do in order to maintain some kind of order and sanity in our busy work lives. We juice, we run, we lift weights in order to feel better from our day to day stressors.

But as we all know, life doesn’t quite work that way. Very early in the film we learn that Ruben has rapidly worsening hearing loss thanks in part to his years as a touring musician, though never really stated out front. But if you’ve ever been to a concert in your life and were too cool for ear plugs, then you might be familiar with the 2–3 days following in which your hearing isn’t quite all there and a subtle ringing permeates the air.

And I think that’s what helps to give the film a very relatable tone. It just made sense that a touring musician at some point would start to decline in some capacity as have many real-world musicians in our time. But the addition of Ruben’s history as a recovering drug addict and the potential for a relapse due to his new health issue adds a tension to the drama that isn’t subtle.

The film parallels that tension and anxiety of the character by muffling the audio almost to the point where we, the audience, start to feel uncomfortable ourselves. If Riz is to be the highlight of the film (which he is) the audio design is a very close second.

If you are wearing a decent pair of headphones while watching the film, it can be very unsettling as often times minutes pass with either zero or muffled sound. We get to experience that same confusion and panic that Ruben is going through on screen, though in a safer environment. One of the earlier scenes in which Ruben finds himself at a hearing doctors office for the first time puts this auditory ploy into action. As Ruben is told to repeat word after word to gauge his accuracy, the audio is muffled enough to the point where the audience would also not be able to make out a single word. Truthfully, I scored a 0 on that test as well.

Worried about a potential relapse, Lou finds Ruben help in a recovery program run by an individual who has also faced his demons in the past, and just so happens to be deaf as well. This is where we are introduced to Joe, played by Paul Raci who’s real life parallel’s Joe’s almost to a T. He now helps others with hearing and vision challenges in a quaint farm like recovery center.

Out of his element with almost no tools of communication, Ruben begins to look elsewhere for help. He finds a potential route back to his old life in an expensive and not quite 100% guaranteed cochlear implant surgical procedure. While working to gather the funds for his new goal, he begins to find stillness and peace with his new life, mainly through the daily practices that Joe forces Ruben into, such as sitting still and writing down his emotions and drinking coffee. Much like myself many a time.

Slowly but surely, Ruben begins to learn sign language and seems almost comfortable with his new life at the center. And just as the audience begins to think that maybe Ruben is a new person, and that he has conquered yet another challenge in life, he sells it all away in one last bid to get his hearing back. As Joe put it best in the film, Ruben was acting like the addict that he thought he left behind.

Again, this parallels many of our day to day choices in life. We choose to go to the gym and find health, only to abandon the practice 3 months later out of discomfort. We write letters to our bosses letting them know that we are moving on in life to bigger and better things, only to keep that letter tucked away for years on end at times.

By the end of the film, Ruben gets what he is searching for. At least, what he thinks he is searching for. Though at this point, now having lived a different life and having met new friends, perhaps the thing that he originally wanted is no longer the thing that he needs. There is no clear ending to the film as far as satisfying conclusion. Just like in life there are just too many uncertainties and most of those can only be tackled one day at a time.

While you can look at the story as an isolated tale about an individual going through a hardship, I personally couldn’t help but to correlate the story to elements of my own life. And I assume that most people watching the film will do the same with different scenes.

We don’t like change and we cling to safety and comfort, even it means that we stop our emotional and mental growth. More so than a film about the challenges of a newly deaf individual, I think the film does a great job at reflecting back to us the challenges that come with just every day life and how often times we are the only ones who are standing in the way of our own inevitable progress.

If you haven’t watched the film, but yet read this anyway, I highly recommend that you spend 2 hours with a good pair of headphones and to immerse yourself into this story. It is well worth the time and Ahmed has been nominated for an Academy Award this year for his portrayal which I think is highly well-deserved.

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