In a particularly uneventful year in movies, “Sound of Metal” was a nice feature on Amazon Prime telling the story of a drummer in a metal band named Ruben, played by Riz Ahmed, who loses his hearing. He reluctantly agrees to receive treatment at a rehabilitation center for deaf people.
For most of the film, Ruben is struggling to cope with his new condition and consider how he wants to live. Does he accept his deafness and cut ties with his former lifestyle as a touring rocker, or does he somehow overcome his deafness and return to his life as best he can?
While the film does a few things right, it doesn’t really merit the plaudits and Oscar buzz that critics are eager to confer it. In any other year, such a movie would take its place among many such indie dramas, not really attracting much attention beyond the novelty of incorporating the feeling of deafness into its story. In every other way, though, it suffers the same problems as most independent dramas: it’s slow, it over-relies on “rawness” and “authenticity” at the cost of its plot and characters, and it’s pretentious.
What ‘Sound of Metal’ Does Right
However, before considering the film’s vices, it’s worth discussing its virtues. “Sound of Metal” stands out in its in-depth treatment of deafness. Not only does it capture the practical burdens hearing loss places on a person, but also the psychological burden.
Some of the best moments of the film are the scenes with Joe (played by Paul Raci), the director of rehab center who was an alcoholic and lost his hearing in Vietnam, explaining to Ruben that he cannot simply “cure” his hearing loss. Rather, Joe tries to show Ruben how his hearing loss presents an opportunity to live a fuller life devoted to the care and wellbeing of others rather than a selfish life that never allows true peace.
This advice falls on (metaphorically) deaf ears since Ruben, who has managed to stay clean from narcotics for four years, still has an addict mentality that relies on quick fixes and mental escapes to avoid bigger questions. So the film also succeeds in capturing the reality of those who struggle with addiction: the bouts of rage, the denial, the struggle with discipline. Ahmed deserves credit for embodying the mercurial nature of an addict who can take so many steps of improvement and win everyone’s sympathy and support, only to dash it all to pieces in one dramatic reversal.
Surprisingly, what most audiences might appreciate is the film’s lack of a moral agenda. It does not aim to instruct or preach. It does not glamorize the loose living of Ruben and his girlfriend Lou, played by Olivia Cooke, nor does it waste time criticizing older mentors like Joe or Lou’s French father Richard, played by Matheiu Almaric, who each take a dim view of Ruben and Lou’s “gypsy life.”
Everyone in the movie is flawed; no one is a hero or villain. Every character makes his or her decisions, all for valid reasons, and it’s left to the viewer to judge.
Refusing to Judge Has Some Flaws
However, this decision to keep things open and above the fray carries some weaknesses that end up hurting the film more than helping it. After all, placing characters’ conflicts in some kind of moral context helps their conflict become more understandable and consequential.
What does hearing loss really mean to Ruben? What does Lou really think about her life with Ruben, both before and after his deafness sets in? If Joe doesn’t want to “convert” Ruben to any kind of religion, what exactly are his aims? Why is Richard never mentioned until the last 15 minutes of the movie? Answering these questions would allow characters to become complex; keeping them unanswered keeps them flat.
In keeping with its refusal to delve into moralizing, the film also avoids any possible cultural commentary. There really isn’t any culture in this movie. Sure, there are places, and there are people, but all of them are generic and lack history or distinctiveness.
This can be a little more than problematic for a movie about an artist struggling with his sense of identity. It is never clear what cultural norms or models influence Ruben to become a drummer. He is simply a random guy who happens to play drums and lose his hearing. The details of his life or worldview are nonexistent.
Diversity Quotas, But Of Course
Then again, the lack of cultural context has the advantage of making “The Sound of Metal” a blank slate that allows for a multiracial set of characters to appease identity politics sentiment among audiences. Thus, you have an unlikely cast consisting of a Pakistani metal rocker, his white female girlfriend and French father, a lesbian Latina friend, and a Baby Boomer white male overseeing a multi-ethnic rehab center for disabled people of all ages. Everything and everyone is represented in this movie.
While this meets Hollywood quotas, the movie loses its realism. Even if a shaky handheld camera shows the characters talking and acting like real people who react realistically to real struggles, there is something very unrealistic about their lack of personality, identity, and community.
Altogether, these faults leave the film’s big themes up in the air by the end of the film. While the final scene settles one important question beautifully, it leaves all the others completely unresolved.
One could say this challenges viewers to come up with their own conclusions and “have conversations,” but one could also say that these loose ends are just a copout from making a serious point with the narrative. What’s more likely though is that most viewers will probably appreciate a release from a story that has been dragging for two hours at this point.
All that said, it’s commendable that studios will still produce serious movies like “Sound of Metal” at a time most movies have become CGI spectacles and most dramas have become protracted television series for internet streaming services. Even if the film has its flaws, its tone and aesthetic offer some welcome relief to the busy and “loud” entertainment environment it inhabits.