A lot has been said about Sound of Metal. It’s been hailed for its true-to-life, inventive and immersive approach at bringing the viewer into the world those hard of hearing know as normality. It has been also remarked extensively on the film’s star, Riz Ahmed, who gave it his all in portraying Ruben, a drummer who one day loses his hearing and must learn to live with a disability. In this context, a handful of great pieces have been penned about how Ruben’s predicament eerily comments on the way we had to learn to adapt to living under lockdowns, unable to do what we love or feel we should be doing. Finally, Sound of Metal has been deconstructed as a study on addiction, which is a theme woven delicately underneath the primary layer of the narrative.
In fact, I find this last angle of interpretation the most interesting of all, though not necessarily in the most conventional way. Granted, Ruben’s journey as a character is directly underpinned by the theme of drug addiction, which is what he suffers from on top of struggling with suddenly losing his hearing. And to this end, the filmmakers make frequent conscious decisions to give important dramatic moments some elements of symmetry with recognizable stages of overcoming drug addiction, such as withdrawal, anger, relapse etc. But that’s not why I am here.
What fascinated me about this movie is found slightly to the side of the main strands of its potential analysis, which – by the way – connects Sound of Metal to this project’s originator, Derek Cianfrance. Before Darius Marder took over as the writer-director of this film and finally made it happen, Sound of Metal languished in development hell for quite a few years. Cianfrance was originally intending for this film (under a working title of Metalhead) to ride the line between documentary and narrative fiction as he wanted to use real musicians as actors to make something I can only imagine would have been a Cassavetes-esque exercise in cinéma vérité. However, for reasons we might never fully understand (unless I start trawling through Cianfrance’s Q&A sessions and interviews to tease it out), stars wouldn’t align for Derek Cianfrance to make this movie. Eventually, Darius Marder, with whom Cianfrance collaborated on The Place Beyond the Pines, took it upon himself to make it happen, stripped the story to its bare essentials and rebuilt it anew. Interestingly however, he may have left a shard of Cianfrance’s soul in the film because Sound of Metal carries a fair degree of symmetry with Blue Valentine, The Light Between Oceans and the aforementioned The Place Beyond the Pines. On top of being a beacon of representation and a study on drug dependency, Sound of Metal is also a movie about a different kind of addiction – to toxic people and relationships doomed to fail.
Granted, this could be an accident or a by-product of the fact Marder and Cianfrance simply think alike, but what Sound of Metal explores while it is not busy with Ruben’s quest to find money to get his implants and get back to his girlfriend (Olivia Cooke) does strike a familiar note. This is especially visible towards the end of the film when Ruben finally has his operation, which by the way does not give him the results he was hoping for, and makes a trip to Paris where – much to his surprise – he finds her completely changed. She is no longer the same tortured soul we met at the outset of the story. She is no longer a runaway with a long history of trauma, self-harming scars she scratches compulsively and music to throw herself at to numb the pain of her existence. She lives with her dad now and you wouldn’t honestly think to ask if she had any kind of troubled past, let alone even suspect she had gone through hell and back. And only after Ruben resurfaces in her life, which in any other story would have been built up to crescendo in a swelling reunion of pure love and longing once-and-for-all extinguished, the filmmakers let us in on what’s going on.
Lou changes when Ruben comes back. For the worse. It is as though a thick layer of dark clouds have descended upon her life and smothered the flame of her gleeful happiness. And ever so slowly Lou slips back to being her old self: traumatized, sheepish, introverted. However, this time Ruben notices it. Having spent so much time away, learning to cope with his new reality and fighting against it with every fibre of his being he witnesses this change, most profoundly when he sees Lou scratch at her scars, probably the first time since they parted ways. Only then does he realize – and the viewer together with him – that he is the problem. He is the drug in this story of addiction. He is the demon clouding Lou’s reality. He is the cancer eating away at her lifeforce. And thus, the axis of symmetry between Sound of Metal and other works Derek Cianfrance had authored in the past is drawn. This revelation doesn’t really draw attention to itself. Far from it. It’s quite easy to miss it because all throughout the duration of the film the viewer is conditioned to see Ruben as the protagonist of this story and one to identify with. After all, he loses his hearing. He checks himself into a rehab. He overcomes insurmountable odds to give himself the best shot at returning to what he thinks is the natural course of life. And it is Ruben we get to accompany as he struggles to understand why this is not meant to be and that the changes to his life are now permanent.
But this exceedingly interesting facet of the film is not about him. When looked at from Lou’s perspective, Sound of Metal is a story of liberation from a cancerous relationship tethering her to the past. Again, like Blue Valentine and essentially everything else Derek Cianfrance ever worked on, Sound of Metal is a film about two people realizing they are not meant to be together, but this one is told from the perspective of someone who – perhaps completely unwittingly – slid into the role of the emotional parasite leeching at his partner. Therefore, the ending to the film is two-fold. The act of Ruben removing his cochlear implants indicates he is ready to stop fighting the disability and embraces the serenity of silence as well as it hints at his understanding, he is the problem. He leaves Lou alone and goes about his own life because this is the best course of action for both. He needs to figure out how to navigate the world without sound and appreciate the challenges ahead while also understanding he has been a destructive force in the life of someone he loved so dearly. They can’t be together.
I find this frankly fascinating that the ending to Sound of Metal is so close in spirit, tone and narrative melody to that of Blue Valentine even though Derek Cianfrance had very little to do with the project after Marder took over. Perhaps the two filmmakers are thematically simpatico, and this is enough for me as a viewer to notice this plane of symmetry, but something tells me this is a bona fide remnant of Cianfrance’s artistic interests that was deeply embedded in the film’s narrative core. It’s a fascinating case of two artists essentially exploring the same landscape of themes: one loosely appraising the terrain from above and the other walking across it and appreciating its texture in a more tactile manner.