Good News for the Perpetually Controlled

This reflection comes from Eli Brown. If you haven’t checked out Sound of Metal, it is an allegorical treasure chest. Stream it on Amazon Prime. **Spoilers Galore**

I have had not cried in quite some time. The tears came out slowly and hesitantly, like street urchins wary of the kindness of a stranger offering them food, but who nonetheless find themselves powerless to resist the pull of this mysterious grace.

         Time and time again, I’ve found this particular grace shimmering in the world of the silver screen. At its most fundamental level, a movie is something that exaggerates a certain aspect or truth about life. An echo is transformed into a thunderclap, a whisper into a shout, a single word into a manifesto. Therefore, when a movie pulls the curtain of reality back for even the briefest moment and reveals the rivers of God’s common grace wending their way along the seams of this world, that brief moment stretches interminably. The results? Well, if I may redirect your attention to the start of this piece (what’s known as a callback in the biz, I believe), tear ducts long dormant find themselves with a renewed sense of purpose.

         The exodus of my tears was brought on by Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, a story about the life of heavy-metal drummer Ruben (Riz Ahmed) after he suddenly loses his hearing. Both Ruben and his girlfriend/fellow bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke) are recovering addicts, and Lou instantly becomes concerned Ruben may relapse as she sees him flounder in the wake of his near-total loss of control over his surroundings. To avoid this, she and Ruben travel to a house for hearing-impaired addicts nestled snugly in a remote countryside locale, and it is here that the brunt of the story unfolds.   

  The world of Sound of Metal rotates on the axis of control. Addiction is an incredibly potent storytelling tool because any human who’s ever looked in the mirror for longer than two seconds knows that the person staring back desires one thing above all else: control over their circumstances. The outlet through which Ruben found he could exert some measure of his own will was heroin, until that became untenable and was replaced by what we find him doing in the opening scene: drumming like an absolute maniac. With every boom of the bass, every snap of the snare, every hit of the hi-hat, we see Ruben acting out the ideal vision for his life. A life of driving around the country and playing gig after gig with Lou, a kind of musical version of Valhalla.

It is here that the heartbreaking genius of Sound of Metal presents itself. While a less ambitious movie might end with its protagonist finally casting off the deadly chains of substance addiction and living happily ever after as an itinerant drummer, Marder and his team use this instead as a jumping off point because they realize that for many, the reign of one addiction only ends when its throne is usurped by another.

When Ruben’s idyllic dream is shattered, the bassline of his life is forcibly ripped from his sphere of experience, and with it goes any notion of control he had over his life. At the outset of his time at the home for deaf addicts, Ruben is consumed by bitterness and enters into his new life with palpable reluctance. His mind becomes transfixed by the idea of restoring his hearing with cochlear implants, though their cost initially stops him from getting them.

As the days drift on, Ruben begins to help out at a nearby school for deaf kids, and we are treated to scenes that are haunted by the beauty of Heaven. Despite the strides Ruben makes, he remains captive to the idea of control offered by the implants, and we see him sneak up to the off-limits computer room several times to bring this to fruition. It’s difficult to say if it was a conscious thought on Marder’s part, but it struck me as more than mere coincidence that Ruben must literally “get high” by going upstairs to the computer room each time he wants to realize this dream.

Not long into his time at the house, Ruben is challenged by Joe (Paul Raci), who presides over the home, to set aside time every day dedicated to simply being still. This task seems to go against the very grain of Ruben’s soul, and day after day complete stillness eludes him. His whole being—body, mind, soul—itches to renew its grasp on the reins of life, and so like one of the great parables of old, he sells all that he owns to lay hold of that most precious jewel: implant surgery. After the operation, he returns to the house and Joe invites him to sit:

Ruben (in ASL and spoken): Look, Joe, I really don’t wanna explain myself right now, okay? It’s time, okay, it’s time, I gotta do something, alright? Trying to save my f***ing life. So that’s what I’m doing. No one else is gonna save my life, right? If I just sit here and diddle around, what am I gonna have? Nothing, okay? And all this sh*t, like, what does it matter, what does it matter—it just passes…

Joe (in ASL and spoken): I wonder, all these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study. Sitting. Have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right Ruben, the world does keep moving and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness, that place—that’s the kingdom of God, and that place will never abandon you.

Joe insists that Ruben leave the house as consequence for violating the trust upon which it was founded. Ruben sinks into listlessness, his life now as desolate as the empty parking lot of his motel, with empty pizza boxes and a loaded ashtray as his sole companions. He merely counts the hours until his implants are activated and he can once again bathe in the sound of metal, drumsticks akimbo, having regained the power and agency that is his birthright.

         However, the day comes, and Ruben is once more thrust into a world unmade. A switch is flipped, and his head is flooded with distorted sounds, discordant voices, and dissonant static, a far cry from the memories he spent every waking hour reliving in anticipation of this moment. This nightmarish soundscape stalks his every step, a sonic filter that traps all sweetness and lets only a strange, bitter noise pass through into his mind. Even the joy of his reunion with Lou at her father’s house in Paris is blunted by the shroud that has settled over his life.

         In the light of the morning, Ruben leaves the house and starts to walk. He comes to rest upon a park bench, surrounded by the incessant chatter of passersby, the low rumble of traffic, and the brazen clanging of church tower bells. Layer upon layer upon layer of sound tumble over one another into an endless cacophony until Ruben reaches up and unhooks the implants from his ears. And then, nothing. With every resource exhausted, every plan frustrated, stillness overtakes him. The kingdom of God rushes in to fill the vacuum left by a life emptied, and Ruben’s countenance lifts as the curtain falls.

Media Content: YouTube, New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Substream Magazine

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