‘Sound of Metal’ and the Narcotic of Nostalgia – Rusty McKie

Sound of Metal (watch on Amazon Prime Video) opens with Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a heavy-metal drummer, playing a concert. The dissonance of a distorted guitar and tribal, warlike intensity puts the audience immediately on edge. Then we cut to Ruben with his girlfriend and music partner, Lou (Olivia Cooke), waking up in their serene Airstream touring bus. Ruben is up early, exercising, cleaning his music equipment, making Lou breakfast.

Sound of Metal (which Brett McCracken included in his best movies of 2020 article for TGC) starts in a cacophony of chaos, yet quickly moves to this nomadic Eden. Even still, there are signs of the fall. Ruben’s chest tattoo says, “Please kill me,” and Lou’s scars from scratching her arms hint at previous trauma and pain. As much as this idyllic scene shows two people doing what they love with someone they love, it’s clear this “paradise” is fragile and easily lost.

Sure enough, 10 minutes into a film about a couple whose lives are built around music, Ruben starts losing his hearing—and his world turns upside down.

Sound of Metal’s ingenious sound design puts us in the terrifying claustrophobia of Ruben’s experience, immersing us not so much in his point-of-view but in his point-of-hearing. Yet the film is more than just a technical feat. It’s a potent exploration of a tension we can all relate to—between nostalgia for a past ideal and making the most of altered circumstances.

Silence and Rage

Recognizing Ruben’s potential for drug relapse under the stress of his rapid-onset hearing loss, Lou takes him to a rural rehab center in a deaf community—far from the noisy life Ruben knows. The community is led by a man named Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam vet who lost both his hearing and his family to alcoholism. 

As the silence engulfs Ruben (and us) in this calm country setting, he can’t hide his angst. The one job Joe gives Ruben—“to learn how to be deaf”—isn’t enough for him, so he starts fixing a roof. Joe tells him, “You don’t need to fix anything here.” 

Joe is talking about more than house projects. 

Joe gives Ruben an assignment to just sit in a room with pen and paper. When the silence is too much, Ruben can write anything he wants until he can sit still again. The next morning at a table with a pen, paper, coffee, and a donut, Ruben’s rage comes out. He pounds the donut with his fist and immediately reforms the donut into a circle. Ruben’s previous life of frenetic noise and movement helped him cope with past pain. But now, faced with stillness and silence, Ruben’s demons surface.

Although writer/director Darius Marder made Sound of Metal before the pandemic, the film is eerily timely. How many of us have raged at the losses around us? For some, home quarantine has transformed life’s noise and frenetic pace into an unnerving silence and stillness. Like Ruben, most of us don’t know what to do with silence. Most of us struggle to be still. 

Like Ruben, most of us don’t know what to do with silence. Most of us struggle to be still.

Yet stillness is crucial for our spiritual health. At one point in the film, Joe agrees with Ruben that the world is noisy, busy, and cruel. Yet with pastoral compassion, Joe wants Ruben to discover another way: “For me,” he says, “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God.”

Narcotic of Nostalgia

Ruben initially finds peace and happiness in this deaf community. Joe even offers him a job to stay and work in the program—a chance to heal and grow, in community, by embracing his new limitations. 

Though never explicitly quoted, the “serenity prayer” common in recovery programs captures Joe’s approach, and his hope for Ruben: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. . . . Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.”

Yet Ruben’s desire to “fix” his hardship leads him to sell everything he has for the false gospel of returning to normal. It’s the opposite of Jesus’s pearl-of-great-price parable in Matthew 13:44–46.) He throws away his newfound community by getting expensive cochlear implants, with hopes to return to his old life with Lou.

Like Ruben, our obsession with recapturing a beloved past can blind us to a potentially better future.

Our obsession with recapturing a beloved past can blind us to a potentially better future.

The last year has devastated many people. Losses were profound, and we must learn to lament. We waste our pain when we don’t. At the same time, we follow a God who takes what’s meant for evil and uses it for our good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). 

Cautionary Tale

Sound of Metal is a cautionary tale. Ruben’s “fix” to get back to hearing the “sound of metal” he knew ends in him hearing the sound of metallic, digital, artificial sound he ultimately can’t bear. He realizes that while Lou helped him get through his darkest days of drug addiction, trying to recreate the past is impossible. 

In the film’s powerful ending, Ruben finally stops trying to fix his circumstances and surrenders to stillness. In this sacred moment—in which he looks to a church bell tower and then upward to the sky, as if in conversation with God—he appears to come to an accepting peace with his new life. 

We don’t know if he’ll continue into health, return to the deaf community he left, or destroy his life again. But the ambiguous ending leaves us asking ourselves, What would I do? Am I able to let go of the longing to get back to normal? Can I give up my addiction to old ways of living—perhaps an addiction to noise, distraction, and busybody coping mechanisms—and open myself to new possibilities of a quieter life with God?

In disruptive moments when our lives seem upended, we naturally want things to get back to normal. But even in unexpected circumstances, God does not stop working (Phil. 1:6). He completes what he starts, even if the path is windy and—from our perspective—full of detours in the wrong direction. 

In the end, we find peace when we give up our self-salvation schemes and obsession with control, and instead accept grace—trusting the truth of Exodus 14:14: “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

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