On Watching 'Sound Of Metal' (2019)

November 06, 2021 - 7 min read

I have difficult relationships with 'sports dramas'. I put into this category all stories where either a sportsman or a musician or a dancer or any craftsman have enormous challenges, overcomes them and succeeds at the end, or fails, sometimes. There are many great and wonderful, canonical or at least famous films in that genre, for example, a few I enjoyed: Raging Bull, The Fighter, Whiplash. But for every great film, there are ten generic copycats, in which plot and narrative always follow the same canvas. It starts with a protagonist, a good craftsman, a promising young man or woman. Then, they face that enormous challenge, which often breaks them and they have to give up for a while, then continue their training, cure or become better, and so until the final where they win, showing us that you shouldn't give up. Life-affirming.

I see nothing wrong with these films. Again, there are great ones, even among those who follow this generic storytelling pattern. However, maybe I am a little tiny bit cynical, but it's often not believable. Their path in overcoming their struggle is predictable from the very first act. At the moment when another miserable boxer breaks his leg, you already know what will happen at the end. Rarely they can surprise you. You can see it from actors faces, you can hear it from music, you can even notice it from the quality of the cinematography. It's just bland. Many of these films are like self-help books. They are all about the same thing and if you watched one you probably watched a good fraction of them.

So at some point, I got bored of 'sport dramas' and started skipping them. Anything that resembles a sports drama also started going into this skipping bin. This way I missed many films that are actually good or even great just because I thought I would see the same thing again. I was surprised that not everything that appears like a sports drama is actually a sports drama how I imagined it, not everything is about simply overcoming struggles and raising to the top. Even the most basic story can be turned into something unexpected, beautifully written, directed and performed, and avoid preachingly life-affirming narratives. They show life is more complex than just overcoming every struggle you face. Some of them are ineluctable. Sometimes you have no choice but to accept. Sometimes you have to reconcile.

Sound of Metal was one of those films that appeared to me as 'a sports drama' but surprised me in a pleasant way. It even became one of my favourites for many reasons I will try to convey here today.

From the first look, the film appears as a story about a drummer who becomes deaf. The synopsis says that. The trailer says that. The first act shows that. It is obvious from the beginning. Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the protagonist, is a drummer, yes, and he loses his hearing, yes, but it's only a character's backstory, a foundation everything is built upon. The main component, however, is Ruben is an ex-drug addict who was able to get away from drugs and found a new addiction, two in fact: music and his singer girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Together they live in a trailer and tour between the US cities playing on different loud and noisy gigs. But one morning, Ruben loses almost all his hearing. He thinks this is temporary. He goes to a pharmacist to get medicine but gets redirected to a doctor and learns that he must stop exposing himself to loud noises or the rest of his hearing will deteriorate rapidly. But Ruben cannot accept his new condition and keeps playing the drums.

Okay, this sounds like a setup for what I called a sports drama above but it's not. It is just a beginning and we will see how seemingly similar stories can go and be told in completely different ways.

It starts as a film about overcoming struggles, winning, keeping doing what you love no matter what, and this is what you expect from it. But when the screen fades to black, it leaves you with completely different feelings. There's still a happy ending, a bit bittersweet, perhaps, but you understand that this whole time this was a story about acceptance and addiction to things and people, our obsessions.

I said "addiction to people" because I think it's one of the main themes of Sound Of Metal. Ruben's and Lou's relationships have started with overcoming drug addiction and turned into an addiction to each other. They saved each other's lives, as they say, and now cannot live apart. The role and importance of Lou for Ruben is expressed in the outstanding four lines of dialogue between Ruben and a member of a Deaf community Joe who greets and interviews him:

JOE(stares at Ruben): How long have you been clean?  

RUBEN: Five years.


JOE: How long have you two been  together?  

RUBEN: Four years.  

Joe nods, thinks.

Before that, there are no specific details I remember on how Lou influenced Ruben's life. We were shown their current life together but we should learn the backstory ourselves from details. And these four lines do more for revealing characters than some films manage to convey in two hours.

The same thing is about everything with this film. It's dense. It doesn't waste time on bland exposition and unnecessary descriptions. I learned from the interview that the authors, Darius Marder and Abraham Marder, did a remarkable job at turning 800 pages of source material they wrote- including detailed backstories, more scenes and alternative plot movements- into a 90-page script, which is probably an ideal length for a feature film.

Because it's a film about the deaf, there are obvious limits to how you can portray events on the screen, especially dialogues and any communication between characters. Many things are shown with sign language, gestures or just nods and facial expressions (well, and subtitles). The sound editing supported by great directing becomes another 'character' and often shows us more than any words can tell.

One of my favourite examples is a scene where Ruben realises he has lost his hearing. It's not one scene but rather a contrast of two. At the beginning of the first act, we see Ruben's morning routine which is filmed as something in between ASMR cooking videos and famous Edgar Wrights montages. We see how Ruben wakes up, makes coffee, etc, and all sounds are highlighted during the process. There's an emphasis on what role they play in our perception although very often we forget they exist and ignore them, take as granted. The next time we see the exact same scene but with no sound. It is when we realise Ruben is deaf although he himself hasn't noticed it, not at the very beginning. The film plays a lot with this contrast showing us how deaf people feel every day. We're shown how they live, how they communicate, their often sad backstories and current happy moments. Ruben is put in all this and together with us, he learns some profound things about himself. He wants his hearing back first but for that he needs expensive hearing implants. His way of finally getting the implants and the contrast of his real experience using them is the masterful implementation of want vs need conflict, probably one of the best and the most powerful I have ever seen in cinema.

But back to the last scene, it's something you will remember for a long time. It will be with you for days, weeks, months, maybe years. Its clear vision and sensations are still in my head, the moment when you understand that the sound of metal is not only the sound of drums Ruben cannot hear anymore but also the sound of hearing implants and the distorted sound of the bell from the very last scene  It still gives me feelings I can hardly explain properly (but I can try): a serenity coupled with oscillation between sadness and happiness for the characters. Something that you rarely experience, something that, like any great piece of art, rewires you in an unusual way.

P.S. If you fancy reading the script, here’s the link.

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