ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"So disconcerting, the things that your memory holds onto without you knowing."
Ruben needed control in order to overcome his addiction, but now it's an impediment to moving forward, as if he's shifted his addiction to this new routine, from drugs to green drink, from suicidality to love, biologically healthy control but still that same psychological relationship. He can't let go of this new routine, can't deal with an interruption of his new control.
I feel that struggle, I hold tightly to my own routine, and even though I think my routine is pretty healthy, I have something of an unhealthy relationship with it. I struggle with its interruption. "We just gotta keep going," Ruben says. "I need more of a plan," he says, common phrases in my own vocabulary. I famously once objected to my wife making crepes because it wasn't part of the plan. "How do you get it back?" he asks the doctor, but that's the thing, you don't. You can get surgical implants, but it's not the same as flipping the switch back on. You need to learn to live without it, without the plan, without the control. You need to learn to live with what you've been given—and with what's been taken away.
Ruben has been sober four years, and he's been with Lou four years. He knows how to be sober, but doesn't know how to be sober without Lou. That's what he has to learn when he becomes deaf: his hearing loss pulls them apart and forces him to learn to be alone. He worries about Lou when they're apart, he projects his anxiety onto her—which isn't to say that she isn't struggling too, but she's a part of his unhealthy psychological makeup. "You need support," she writes to him, and he explodes in frustration, "Well then support me!" but he needs to learn how to support himself. "You hurt yourself, you hurt me. I'll hurt myself too." He's completely dependent upon her, which isn't fair to her and it isn't healthy for him.
So he gets help. He joins Joe's program, but he's still not ready to accept his new life. He says he's still planning to get implants, and Joe doesn't say so but it hurts him. He's part of a deaf community, not a community of people waiting to get implants, and people benefit greatly from the support of that specifically deaf community. Ruben has violated the community bond, he has implied that deafness is something you fix. It's not about fixing deafness, it's about fixing your relationship to that deafness. The program is about fixing "this," Joe says, pointing to his head, "not this," pointing to his ears—and so is the movie itself.
Sound of Metal is about deafness in some very important ways—the specificity of Ruben's struggle, a struggle that hundreds of millions of people around the world go through—but there's also a sense in which it's not only about deafness, in which Ruben's hearing loss is applicable to a wide range of other struggles. My intention here is not to reduce the importance of the specificity of the struggle of hearing-impaired people, rather I (and the movie) want to destigmatize deafness, to show how it isn't some unthinkably strange or alien experience, it's one version of something we all go through.
It's a particular struggle that speaks directly to the universal human experience. Psychological processing is something we all must learn to do, whether we're recovering from addiction or accepting that we've lost our hearing or dealing with being stuck indoors because of a global pandemic. And the key to that processing, at least from my perspective and from the movie's quietly Buddhist perspective, is learning the inner peace to accept yourself with all the things you might not like. We can all grow, but there are some things over which we have no control, some things that we can't fix.
Joe's study and his assignment to sit still is essentially a simple form of meditation. "There's nothing that needs to be accomplished in this room." It's about forgetting the plans and the routines and the control. "Serenity is something you get when you stop wishing for a different past," Ruben's sponsor Hector tells him, but that extends to present and future as well. Serenity is something you get when you accept who, what, and where you are, it's when you accept yourself in all your traumatic specificity. It's about forgetting about the past and the future and simply living in the present. It's not about resisting your nervous impulses, it's about learning to sit with them and accept them. It's about finding moments of stillness.
"You don't need to fix anything here."
I don't talk about technique a lot, which is definitely one of my shortcomings as a film writer, but I gotta say that the sound mixing here is so impressive. It's crucial to the story, of course, so in some sense maybe the filmmakers were forced into it, but on the other hand it would have been that much more painful if it hadn't been so beautifully accomplished. It's all in the way the film pulls sound out, the way it cuts between what Ruben hears and the world around him, the way it constructs the new sounds Ruben hears with his implants. It's all in the way the film focuses on the tiny sounds we take for granted, the grass, the wind. Beautiful.