The Roots of Addiction and Sound of Metal

What Happens when the Foundation of Recovery Comes Crashing Down?

Sam Guthrie / 1.21.21

Movies about addiction usually focus on the challenges of turning from substance use to recovery. But in Sound of Metal, Director Darius Marder focuses on what happens when the foundation of recovery comes crashing down. The film follows Ruben, a drummer in a tandem rock group with his girlfriend Lou. For Ruben and Lou, their relationship and music have been the saving grace on their roads to recovery. But the foundation of their recovery quickly crumbles when Ruben starts to rapidly lose his hearing. 

For Ruben, voices are suddenly muffled and sounds once clear now barely register; the whistle of a coffee pot, the stream of a shower, the mumble of a waiter taking orders. And with the film’s stellar sound editing, Ruben’s loss of hearing is a shared experience. Like we’re underwater with him, not knowing how we’ll get back to the surface for air. Lou finds a home for deaf people who are recovering addicts like Ruben, now on the edge of relapse. Ruben is no stranger to AA; in several scenes he openly confesses his addictions. But Ruben is reluctant to acknowledge that his music and relationship may be lost forever. 

When it comes to unhealthy habits, it doesn’t take long to rattle off a laundry list of practices we’d do well to shed. For those looking to kick the urge, oftentimes it takes a healthy practice to take the spot of an unhealthy one. But any range of worthy endeavors always runs the risk of becoming the foundation on which all of other things rest; the rudder that directs our lives.

For Ruben, music and a healthy relationship helped him out of the pit of addiction. These foundations were the lifeblood of his recovery. His drum set, the sea of noise, his partners massive solos and blaring vocals, the cheer of the crowd were his rescue from a life of addiction. When Ruben loses his hearing, he loses everything. His deafness is the light switch that illuminates a dependency that never left. It is a switch he’d rather not turn on. When considering the ways I use good things to hide my own insecurities and deep need, it’s a switch I’d rather not turn on either. 

Ruben quickly learns that in sign language, the sign for addiction is a crooked pointer finger hooked inside your cheek. Like a fish on a hook, addiction sinks in and yanks you wherever it desires. We usually associate the hook and line of addiction with a destructive vice. Addiction is a word used to describe everything from the undisciplined and the wayward to the bound and powerless. It is often a word to describe somebody else. It certainly isn’t a word I’d use first to describe fitness regimens, clean eating, political preference, or a growing bank account. But like Ruben’s music and relationship, addiction plays no favorites.

Ruben, like us, is after wholeness; solid ground in the chaos of life. For Ruben, he believes that the ticket to wholeness will be expensive cochlear implants. The surgery will “fix” his problem, and he’ll be able to meet up with Lou, and they can continue their life as vagabond rockstars. In fact, Ruben sounds most like an addict when he’s talking about his plan to restore his previous life. It makes me wonder about the ways I speak about the fragile things I depend on for wholeness. Ruben’s dilemma reveals that addictions go deeper than what the eye can see. And what the film seems to walk into accidentally is that we all are closer to the edge of addiction than we think.

Sound of Metal reminds me of a story Jesus told about two brothers who dealt with their own fish hooks lodged inside of their cheeks. The wayward son was yanked to the ends of the kingdom to binge on life’s indulgences. The disciplined son was tethered to the idea that his worth was tied to loyalty and righteousness. It’s hard to say which son Ruben embodies in Sound of Metal. Like most of us, he’s probably an unhealthy dose of both.

At the end of the film, Ruben sits alone on a bench in a distant land, far from the deaf community that welcomed him so readily. He has sold everything for the cochlear implants he has finally realized won’t provide the wholeness he desires. As the implants cut in and out, he removes them from his head as his world goes silent. Ruben sits still for the first time in the film, resting in a muted world as viewers are left to imagine where he goes from here. I’d like to think in his moment of stillness, it’s as if he’s already begun his journey home.