Starting with its title, “Sound of Metal” doesn’t immediately stand out as the perfect movie to watch over the holidays. The story of a metal-band drummer and recovering heroin addict who suffers sudden hearing loss isn’t family fun in the vein of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or an endearing local performance of “The Nutcracker.” Yet “Sound of Metal” moved me so much that it made me rethink what it means for art to be comforting. As we drag ourselves, battered and isolated, toward the end of 2020, “Sound of Metal” is the perfect movie to offer the sparks of hope and grace that may make for a better 2021.
When we want to be comforted, we generally reach for something soothing and easy to absorb: macaroni and cheese and a 23rd re-watch of “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” really good dark chocolate and a Nancy Meyers movie full of tasteful, expensive taupe interior decoration. As NPR’s Linda Holmes once put it, comfort food culture is “what I take in when I don’t want to hold up my part of the artistic bargain. … I just need something where it does all the work, and I just sit there.”
But being lulled isn’t the same thing as being revitalized; escaping isn’t always the way to have hurts addressed or battered faith restored. Comfort isn’t merely the absence of agitation; it can be an active attempt to ease grief and pain.
“Sound of Metal” is a movie about providing that kind of deeper solace. It’s the rare film that is defined by its characters’ profound kindnesses to each other, even when they make difficult decisions or face serious disagreements.
When Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) hearing fails suddenly while he’s on tour with his bandmate and partner, Lou (Olivia Cooke), she is willing to sacrifice the sense of security she gets from being with him to get Ruben to a sober living community for deaf people. There, Joe (an astonishingly good Paul Raci) is gentle and patient with Ruben as he struggles to “learn to be Deaf” and to adapt to a community that has come together around the idea that deafness is not a disability or a flaw to be corrected, but a source of a unique and valuable culture. Ruben eventually discovers the joy of teaching, connecting with deaf students at an affiliated school.
2020 has made a lot of us feel the same sense of disorientation Ruben experiences in the early stages of “Sound of Metal.”
The things we took for granted — for Ruben, his hearing; for the rest of us, the ability to move freely around the world — have vanished, and we have to find new ways to communicate and to live. And like Ruben, we find that the potential responses to our predicament are imperfect. The cochlear implants Ruben eventually buys restore some of his hearing, but in a distorted, echoing form. The Zoom calls and suburban refuges that some Americans have used as alternatives to their old work lives and neighborhoods can’t quite replace our old routines and milieus.
But unlike Ruben, we don’t have a community of experts on how to live through a pandemic ready to take us in and help us stumble through our new circumstances. Instead, our disparate risk assessments and choices have become painfully visible to each other. Vigilant mask-wearers feel attacked by people who flout public health guidance; small business owners and parents desperate to get their kids back to school feel imperiled by proponents of the strictest lockdowns. Even among people who broadly agree about the importance of squelching the pandemic, conversations about details are fraught.
In a way, watching “Sound of Metal” reset my brain after a long and difficult year.
In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Joe tells Ruben he has to leave the community. His cochlear implants run contrary to the group’s guiding philosophy; his presence there is a rebuke to the choices his friends have made to embrace American Sign Language and their particular experience of the world. The conversation is painful; it’s obvious how difficult it is for Joe to tell Ruben this and how difficult it is for Ruben to give up hope that he could have both his implants and his new community. But though the difference between them is irreconcilable, the conversation is not harsh or cruel.
A reminder that such conversations are even possible is a lifeline for what is bound to be an exceptionally painful winter. There is no vaccine for the differences revealed by the covid-19 pandemic. As we struggle to repair our torn civic fabric, we’ll need the kind of radical kindness “Sound of Metal” offers us. The movie isn’t an escape from all difficulty. But in modeling the qualities that can help us reconcile with those who have hurt us without giving up our principles, it offers a deeper form of comfort.
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