The Small Voice of Stillness
The spiritual profundity of Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed as Ruben. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' [1 Kings 19:11-13]
Sound of Metal is probably my favorite new film of the pandemic year (though to be fair I have not yet seen a number of films that I expect to like, including Nomadland). I could list a host of reasons why: the force and subtlety of Ria Ahmed’s, Olivia Cooke’s and Paul Raci’s performances, the ingenuity of Nicolas Becker’s sound design, the intimacy and sensitivity of its portrayal of deafness as a culture, and of the process of learning to be deaf as a formerly-hearing adult as a kind of refugee experience. Most centrally, it’s the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies, why they are a distinct art form worth celebrating and experiencing because it is, irreducibly, an experience, not something you can know about any other way.
So I recommend if you haven’t seen the film and care about spoilers, please, go see it before reading any further, because I can’t talk about what I want to talk about in the film without comprehensively spoiling it, and you really do need to experience it, not rely on my descriptions as an adequate substitute for that experience.
Ok. So, since you’ve already seen the film, I don’t need to summarize the plot, but I’ll do so anyway both because you may have forgotten and because the narrative arc of the story is the best structure for me to hang my own observations from. Riz Ahmed plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer in a band fronted by his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). They’re both lost souls — he’s a recovering heroine addict, she’s engaged in obsessive cutting and other forms of self-harm — who, in their own estimation, have saved each other’s lives, and have a deeply devoted and loving relationship. A few minutes into the film, Ruben suddenly loses his hearing — something we experience along with him as sounding like the whole world was suddenly under water. He tries to hide what happened from Lou, but after their next concert she quickly figures out what is wrong, and makes him confront both the fact of his deafness and the attendant fears and the risk that he will start using again in response.
With the help of his sponsor, he’s introduced to a group home for deaf addicts in recovery, run by Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in Vietnam. Right from the start, Joe makes it clear that if Ruben wants to join them, Lou will have to leave:
JOE: You understand that if Ruben was to come here, he’d have to do it on his own? Members live in one house together with no contact to the outside world - no phones. I’ve found that in all cases that’s the way it works best. Can you help Ruben commit to that Lou?
Watching the film, I understood immediately the possible reasons why Joe might have been right. Ruben is going to have to learn how to be deaf. He’s not only going to have to learn new skills; he’s going to have to immerse himself in a new culture, a whole new way of life. More deeply, if he commits to the idea that he is permanently deaf, that deafness is not something he’s going to try to fix, he’s going to have to leave his prior identity behind completely and create a new one fully rooted in his deafness. And Lou, as a hearing person, can’t help with that process; she can only hinder it.
I got all that, and nonetheless, I was 100% with Ruben in his resistance to the idea. All my antennae were vibrating with alarm, saying: watch out, Ruben. This sounds like a cult.
I want to hasten to add: there is literally no sign in the film that the community Ruben joins — and he does join, after initially resisting, because Lou insists that he do so — is in any way exploitative, in the way that cults are or in any other way. It’s a community of genuine mutual care, and Ruben benefits from that aspect of life with them as much as he benefits from learning how to sign. But it’s also self-contained and isolated from the hearing world, and no matter how good it obviously was, in itself and for Ruben specifically, those aspects kept me on a certain level of alert throughout.
The aspects of recovery culture feel like the most familiar things to Ruben about his new home, but there are also spiritual disciplines that are new, and that feel like they are taking him to a deeper confrontation with himself entirely independent of his deafness — but it’s a confrontation that is never actually completed while he is there. When Joe finds Ruben repairing an eave of the house one day, he calls him in and tells him, bluntly, that nothing here needs to be fixed. Obviously, this isn’t literally true — the eave probably did need fixing — and I don’t think Joe’s real point was about deafness either, even though that is something he emphatically believes does not need fixing. Rather, his point was about Ruben and the relationship between his inner state and his outer behavior. Why was Ruben fixing the eave? Because he needed to do something, to fix something, to externalize because his internal state was too frightening. So Joe imposes a discipline on him: every morning, when he wakes up at 5:00 am, he’ll find coffee and donuts waiting for him, and he’s to go into an empty room on the top floor of the house, and sit. Just sit, doing nothing, being still. And if he can’t be still, he should write, longhand, until he’s ready to stop, and sit, and be still. Ruben resents and resists this as well, but he does it — which is to say: he writes, even though he hates writing.
It’s a moment that hit home powerfully for me. I’ve had The Artist’s Way sitting on my desk for several years now, and I periodically tell myself I’m going to start a similar discipline of starting my day by writing three pages longhand. I’ve even done it a handful of times — but I’ve never made it a practice. I’ve been too resistant to authority, even my own, to bend myself to it. So I recognize the appeal of having an external authority make me adopt that practice, even as, deep down, I am convinced that that’s cheating, that if I change because I am following some external authority, then I haven’t really changed at all, and when it comes to a crisis where I don’t want to obey that authority, the authority is going to fall, whether because I violate it, or because I don’t and come to resent the authority for keeping me in line. That is, in fact, precisely what happened to me in my own life when, after years of pursuing a more religiously observant life, I cracked.
And that’s precisely what happens to Ruben. He grows in this community, becoming important to a class of deaf kids where he’s learning to sign, important to a fellow resident of the group home who he designs a tattoo for. He becomes visibly calmer, and more accepting of his deafness. He seems to have found not only peace but a place. But doesn’t ever truly learn to be still. And the moment he realizes, by surreptitiously going on line, that Lou has continued to perform without him, that illicit information from the outside world is enough to prompt him to sell all his belongings, including the trailer that he and Lou lived in, to raise the money for cochlear implants, and to undertake the surgery without telling Joe or anyone in the community about it.
The scene where he tells Joe what he’s done is incredibly painful. Ruben asserts that he doesn’t have to justify himself, then proceeds to unspool a tangled string of words that don’t add up to any kind of explanation at all, his self-assertion ultimately ending in a statement of almost complete self-negation. Before Joe’s gaze, he is visibly nervous and uncomfortable with his actions. The rock bottom of this moment comes when he begs for money to buy back his trailer. Joe correctly identifies him as sounding like an addict. And then, with tears in his eyes, he banishes him, for violating the trust of the community, with one parting question:
JOE: I wonder, all these mornings you've been sitting in my study, sitting, have you had any moments of stillness? Because you're right, Ruben. 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.
It’s an expulsion from Eden. But I cannot help but see it as a fortunate fall. For all that I saw the manifest good in this place, for all that I saw how it was helping Ruben, I never shook that first warning, that first alarm. This community is not the world, I thought, this life is not your life. This is an artificial place, a refuge, and one you never really chose. While it is sustaining you and building you up, it is also protecting you, from yourself most of all. And you cannot be protected from yourself, not forever.
Thrust out into the cold world, Ruben gets his implants turned on, and learns that what they give him is nothing like hearing as he knew it. Now the world is abuzz with static and discord, a discord both similar to and radically different from the noise that he produced as a musician. (I don’t think it’s an accident that when he is alone with Lou in their trailer at the start of the movie, they listen to the sweetest and most old-fashioned music, nothing like the music that they produce, that feels pulled out of them as a cry of pain.) He seeks out Lou, who is staying with her wealthy father from whom she had been estranged but with whom she has now reconciled, and their meeting is another incredibly painful moment in the film, another sundering. Ruben realizes that Lou does not want to pick their relationship up where it left off, that she has moved on, but that she is too pained and guilty to say so to his face. So he says it for her: it’s ok. Precisely because he loves her, wants her, left his deaf paradise for her, he will also let her go. That their love is over does not negate the fact that it was love, and a love in which they saved each other’s lives.
When Ruben leaves Lou’s father’s home, the world assaults him anew with its fractured sound, clashing so violently with the warm sunlight pouring down from above, until finally he sits down on a bench, pulls off the electronics that activate his implants, and is plunged into silence. And there, in that silence, he finds the stillness that Joe told him to seek every morning when he was instructed to sit.
Here’s the thing: Joe was right. God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the small voice of stillness. That’s what Ruben needs to experience. And everything the community gave him, every way he changed there, made it possible for him to do what he had to do to find and experience that moment of stillness. But none of it was sufficient, and Ruben was never going to find that in his community. He had to establish himself as a self, and in the end even the community that had given him the necessary tools was a hindrance to his doing that. He had to leave, because he had to lovingly let Lou go, and he could only do that on his own, in the world, without the swaddling arms of that warm, loving community to run back to.
That’s a hard and painful lesson. But it may be the only way I, personally, can accept that places and communities of the kind that Ruben finds are not snares. I don’t know that I can ever see them as homes, but perhaps I can see them as valuable places to sojourn, and refuge, before embarking on the journey once again.