The metal genre of rock music suggests rebellion — defiance and anti-orthodoxy. But the indie film Sound of Metal is just a new-fashioned, sentimental pity party for Ruben (Riz Ahmed), a multiracial drummer in an experimental rock-metal art band. His rebellion is a pose: bleached hair, tattooed body, drug-addict history, itinerant lifestyle. He’s not rebellious; he’s privileged. His bandmate girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) — the self-cutting, suicidal vocalist of their spoken-word (shrieking word) duo — is the scion of an upper-crust French family, slumming with her hipster American boyfriend across the U.S.A.
When Ruben loses his hearing to high-decibel concert overkill (while Lou tearfully pursues her careerist path), he’s forced to confront his demons. This doesn’t mean bothering to reassess his attraction for metal-genre anarchy; it’s just privileged navel-gazing. Ruben enrolls in a rehab center for the deaf but eventually opts out for the globe-trotting advantages of bourgeois bohemians. From the desolate roads of Nomadland America, he finds himself on the streets of Paris where he finally realizes that his crisis is existential.
Ahmed’s Ruben wears a “Please Kill Me” tattoo across chest, but he also sports a great T-shirt wardrobe (Einstürzende Neubaten, GISM, Morning Dew, a Youth of Today hoodie). Sad-eyed Ahmed doesn’t have the self-admiration of Ryan Gosling seen in producer Derek Cianfrance’s previous insufferable films. Disney kid Gosling couldn’t resist vanity while Ahmed — whose casting partakes of Muslim immigrant sanctimony — acts insufferably. Marlon Brando as the legless war veteran in The Men (1950) went through spiritual rehabilitation; Ruben sulks. Ahmed’s eagerly demonstrative, like most actors, which helps the rehab counselor (Paul Raci) steal the film with his reserved calm.
Director Jonathan Marder’s existentialism seemed boringly familiar to me, and then I saw that the film’s crucial sound design, alternating silence and noise (but less imaginatively than Bernard Herrmann’s electronic music score for Hitchcock’s The Birds), was the work of Carlos Reygadas, the celebrated Euro-Mexican cineaste who specializes in quasi-religious, quasi-profane ruminations such as Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux, and Nuestro Tiempo. Like those art-house films, Sound of Metal desanctifies the spiritual void in modern pop culture. Ruben’s rebellion becomes chic agnosticism, the privilege of those who are able to escape desperation and fly away for distraction. The film’s most striking image is a shot signifying Ruben’s escape to Europe: a beautiful sleek airplane slicing through clouds and dawn-blue sky like a golden needle, courtesy of cinematographer Daniël Bouquet
The key line in Sound of Metal is Ruben’s medical diagnosis speculating “whether or not it is exposure to noise or an autoimmune issue.” That hits the 2020 jackpot. Has our society overturned because of external, cultural chaos, or is it a symptom of individual, godless psychosis? This confusion is central to the film’s falsity.
Those inclined to ignore spiritual concerns might accept Marder’s premise, but others will find it lacking — which I do, as with Reygadas’s films and especially those made by Sound of Metal’s producer Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). They all aim for profundity yet wind up as banal illustrations of post-Christian film culture. (Sound of Metal is based on Cianfrance’s “docufiction” short Metalhead.)
Sound of Metal reminded me of an essay about “the constant exposure to pop” by philosopher Roger Scruton who pondered whether pop culture was “eroding the art of hearing.” Scruton wrote, “I don’t mean merely that people are no longer listening. I mean that, however hard they listen, they hear less and less.”
Scruton’s old-fogey attitude toward pop culture parallels Reygadas, Cianfrance, and Marder, whose dubious spiritual quests ultimately become dissatisfied agnosticism. Sound of Metal lacks the true self-examination that one hears in “All the Time in the World,” by the band X, in which lead singer Exene contemplates:
Some failed to live up to life
Some trailed behind their own comet tails
Some wailed and cried out to God to no avail
And some got impaled by speeding metal
And infected needles.
Marder and Cianfrance can’t match X’s artistry or daring, and they also fail to match X’s risks. Sound of Metal shows the millennium’s avoidance of soulful self-examination. Merely a showy cinematic tattoo, a narcissistic desecration of the body, Sound of Metal is a work of spiritual vacancy. It also misrepresents the joy, force, and creativity of metal music and the politically challenging high art of great punk rock.