Sound of Metal made a modest splash at the Oscars this year, racking up victories in the Editing and Sound categories. The film, released in 2019 and distributed by Amazon in 2020, showcases the auditory decline of a heavy metal drummer.
As his hearing deteriorates, Ruben is thrown from a life of hard rock to a life of hardship. Lulu, his girlfriend and bandmate, becomes subject to the increased frequency of his tirades and outbursts.
It’s heavily implied that their relationship teeters on abusive, considering the present scratch marks on Lulu’s arm, which were self-inflicted. It’s also established that Ruben was once a drug addict (dabbling in “everything”, according to him).
Ruben is ultimately sent to a shelter for deaf drug addicts since, well, since he technically fits the bill. Ruben’s main objective is to learn American Sign Language (ASL) and get adjusted to a life of complete, deafening silence.
But Ruben isn’t so keen on surrendering to the inevitability of this change. No, no, he wants his old life back. The life of drumming, the life of heavy metal.
More importantly, he wants back the life he had with Lulu. As he would soon discover, pulling the past into the present can be fruitless.
While at the shelter, he concocts a plan to get a cochlear implant or “CI” for short. A CI is an internal device that bypasses the ear canal and sends sounds directly into electrodes implanted into the cochlea.
But who can really blame Ruben for his choices throughout the film? There’s nary a fate worse than going from a world of loud, brash, heavy metal to an empty room of imposed silence. It’s akin to a world-famous singer losing her voice. At face value, deafness and heavy metal are on opposite sides of the audiological spectrum.
Hey, I’m Something of a Deaf Man Myself…
But for someone like me, the Supreme Commander of ToomStone, such a spectrum is as wide as a dime. That’s right, I’m deaf and heavy metal is the blood in my veins, baby!
I actually have “Heavy metal enthusiast who can’t hear for crap” plastered on several social media accounts. PROUDLY plastered, I should say.😃
As the recipient of a cochlear implant, I tell others that I’m a “metalhead in more ways than one.”
At the time of this writing, I’m the only person who’s ever laughed at my joke.
Past Deaf-Related Content
Also, if you’re one of my more ardent followers, you’d know that commenting on deaf-related films is my favorite pastime. I’ve written about A Quiet Place, The Unholy, and closed captions in movie theaters. Time to add Sound of Metal to that ever-growing list.
I mean, this was never even a question of “if.” If there’s a deaf movie out there, it will NOT escape the lights of my analytical brain.
Anyway, I thought I’d use my Deaf expertise to clear up some inaccuracies that Sound of Metal labors on.
Cochlear Implants and Insurance Coverage
A crucial plot point states that cochlear implants (that cost between $40,000-$80,000) are not covered by insurance and must be paid for out of pocket. This “fact” presents a major obstacle for Ruben who may have to accept his deafness after all.
This is, of course, completely false.
The solutions for deafness, a rare and debilitating physical condition, are certainly covered by insurance policies. Although their coverage percentages vary and a co-pay may be needed.
There are currently 118,100 people with cochlear implants in the United States alone. It’s silly to assume that all of them paid for the surgery and device with their bank accounts.
Even though this plot point is misleading and incorrect, it still plays an important role in Ruben’s character development, which we will cover in a bit.
A Cochlear Implant’s Efficacy
Another inaccuracy I should tackle is the sound a CI produces (the titular “sound of metal”, if you will).
When Ruben’s CI gets activated, he’s taken aback by the metallic sounds being transmitted into his brain. The voice of his audiologist sounds distant while the surrounding environmental sounds are like the static noise of an old tape recorder.
This gives Ruben immediate buyer’s remorse.
According to the film’s audiologist, Ruben should wait it out until he gets “used to” the noises. Basically, “suck it up, buttercup.”
Now, I can’t give a one-answer-fits-all verdict on this one. How a CI sounds to a recipient is subject to many, many different factors.
I’ve been deaf since birth and cannot testify to the efficacy of a CI because I don’t have the reference point of “normal” human hearing.
For what it’s worth, here’s what I, a CI-user, have to say: For the vast majority of the film, I had my CI on and the sounds seemed “normal” to me. When it shifted to Ruben’s perspective, with his implants on, I could tell that something was different. The change in sound texture was very noticeable to me.
Again, take it for what it’s worth. The conspicuous sound change was probably an artistic choice to streamline the story.
My Life Story: A Deafie
Speaking of stories, Sound of Metal had one of the greatest ones I’ve seen in the visual medium, hands down. And I’m not saying this because of its personal relevance.
Sure, this movie made me nostalgic about the time I immersed myself in silent surroundings and learned ASL back in 2007. I was a sophomore in high school and was about to transfer to a deaf school. Though the place I went to was a summer camp, not a sanctuary for addicts (thank goodness). I probably had it a little easier than Ruben.
And believe me, I was every bit the “wide-eyed owl” Ruben was during his first few days there at the community (Ruben’s name sign was the sign for “owl”, part of an inside joke among the community members).
So after Lulu leaves him at the community, Ruben is left in the care of Joe, the counselor. Joe was deafened during the Vietnam War when a bomb went off. Thanks to his subsequent alcoholism, he eventually lost his wife and kids, too.
Joe made it his life’s mission to help deaf folks find peace in their handicap and stray from abusing drugs. Obviously, Ruben was a special case since his addiction was in his past and deafness in his present and future (the reverse compared to his acquaintances).
As time goes on, Ruben genuinely begins to settle in.
He learns ASL and makes friends with the community members, including hyperactive school kids. Though Lulu is gone, he starts to form a friendship with a school teacher (played by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff). Although their connection didn’t go beyond smiles and interactions, it still seemed there was something between them. Maybe.
Not that any of it matters, because of Ruben’s impulsive decisions.
You see, while Ruben was getting adjusted to the impending silence, he felt the burn of a silent longing for his old life with Lulu. His old life of chaos, angst, and turmoil.
Ruben covertly arranged surgery to get a bilateral cochlear implant (overkill, in my opinion. I only have a CI on one side and it’s good enough).
It turns out Ruben wasn’t at peace with his impending silence and began looking for an out. He went so far as to sell off his drums, musical equipment, and even his RV to procure the money needed for the surgery.
Now, remember when I brought up the insurance thing?
The reason the movie states (falsely) that CI surgeries aren’t covered by insurance is that Ruben needed to give away the vestiges of his former life. Remember, he’s a character in a movie. He needs to have an arc or there isn’t a story to tell.
Ruben selling off his possessions, in a bullish attempt to get the money, was necessary for the film’s satisfying conclusion. But let’s not rush to that point just yet.
Consequences of Resisting Change
After Ruben “does the deed” of getting the CI, Joe summarily kicks him out of the community.
The deaf addicts don’t need a constant reminder that deafness is something that can, and should, be fixed. Cochlear implants are not for everyone, depending on a person’s unique audiological makeup, which is why many of them don’t have one.
Joe’s sanctuary was a place for deaf folks to find acceptance and Ruben would have been the proverbial fly in the ointment had he stayed. Understandable.
Joe: Agent of God
I really enjoyed Joe’s character and thought he was played to perfection by Paul Raci. I wish he got the Oscar because his final scene where he confronted Ruben about the CI was a master class of acting.
In reference to his earlier assignment for Ruben, Joe emphasized the importance of finding the “moments of stillness.”
“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.”
You could sense Joe was absolutely crushed by Ruben’s choice and was all the more devastated because he felt like he failed him. There are times in life where the people we care about make choices that we know will be inimical to their well-being. And the only choice we have is to dissent in silence.
Sometimes, we have to watch as our loved ones fester in the swamp of their poor decisions.
But life goes on. You can’t save everyone. Drug counselors know this all too well.
It ultimately goes down to the patient to save themselves. They need to resist the urge to satiate their addictions when it arises. They need to keep their emotions in check. To be stoic.
Importance of being Stoic
While Ruben didn’t suffer from drug addiction in this film, he was addicted to the bygone days. He wanted the past in the present, which is a place where it didn’t belong.
When Ruben’s hearing started its rapid decline, his emotions bubbled to the surface. He was angry at his unexpected fate.
Worse yet, he was angry and didn’t know who to direct his anger towards. God? Where’s God’s physical manifestation that you can hit like a punching bag? Nowhere in sight? Well, better direct that rage inward.
And that’s precisely what Ruben did. He channeled his emotions inward and then outward by smashing crap in his own RV and doughnuts in Joe’s study (not kidding about the last part, by the way). These emotions eventually dictated Ruben’s choices when he sold his possessions and scheduled a life-changing surgery on impulse.
Don’t ever, ever let your emotions take over. It’ll never end well. Always take a deep breath and let your logic take the reins.
Such teachings are timeless and have been perpetuated for millennia.
Stoicism – Philosophy of the Greeks and Romans
Almost 2,000 years ago, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his iconic Meditations detailing his philosophy called Stoicism. While the school of thought is commonly attributed to him, it was actually founded by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium.
As the name implies, Stoicism teaches the virtue of overcoming destructive emotions to keep a clear, rational mind. Whatever the universe throws at you is a mere grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.
Any living being has to brave through hardships, whether it’s a bee knocked off balance by a gust of wind or a deer running into a thorn bush. These sentient beings don’t have the time or capabilities to sit there and sulk. So, why should we?
Whatever happens to you contributes to the overall well-being of the Universe. (About to wax philosophical here)
Think of a fish that is hunted and subsequently killed. The predator, be it man or beast, will devour that fish and satiate their hunger. The fish’s essences will return to the universe once more, completing its purpose.
Bad things happen and if they don’t kill you, there’s no need to be upset.
Emperor Marcus put it this way in Book 11 of Meditations:
“Keep this thought handy when you feel a bit of rage coming on–it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real person doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance–unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.“
Since the printing press wasn’t a thing back then, Marcus kept his writings to himself. Perhaps he wrote them to remind himself of the virtues that fueled him through his life.
In fairness, it is easy to forget these virtues after a period of not reading about them and keeping your brain sharp. You need a constant reminder. That’s why periodic Bible study and churchgoing are essential!
Back to Ruben. It was Ruben’s fate that he would live in silence.
Sure, he’d have to surrender his music but it would still live on in his heart, no? He taught deaf children drumming techniques before his emotions pushed him towards a vain attempt to “fix” his hearing. What breaks you will actually better you in the long run.
During a scene where Joe introduced Ruben to the community, they engaged in a group prayer (in ASL). They said, “Lord, give me the strength to accept what I cannot change.”
In a way, Ruben didn’t get the message since he literally could not understand what they were praying.
Peace in Silence
A Stoic in Ruben’s situation would’ve kept calm and brushed aside the coming deafness. They would’ve reevaluated their lives to figure out the best path forward, by using logic not emotion.
Change will happen even if you try to avoid it.
And despite Ruben’s best efforts, he was sadly not able to reconnect with his beloved Lulu. After tracking her down in Paris, France, Ruben became disheartened when he wasn’t able to fully hear her singing voice in a duet with her father. Symbolically, it showed that life went on.
They both changed and it was time to move on. Lulu was happier away from Ruben. Ruben could be happier, too, if he simply accepted his situation.
So after a loud, brash opening of Ruben performing an earth-shattering drum solo, his story ends with him sitting on a bench, removing his CIs, and accepting the beautiful silence of his world.
The Kingdom of God arrived for him at last.
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