Running to Stand Still

Searching for the Self in Sound of Metal

illustration by Dani Manning

From the opening notes of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, there’s a crack forming within the dream. Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) sits behind his drum kit, bathed in darkness and sweat, intently watching his muse, bandmate, girlfriend, and recovery partner, Lou (Olivia Cooke), as she serenades the crowd with an abrasive, droning swoon. Uncertainty checkers Ruben’s face as he strikes the drums with ferocity, like a man reaching for an answer to a question he’s yet to understand. Sometimes we get clear, subtitled lines of Lou’s singing. But more often than not, we don’t get that clarity. Something is off. 

Marder eases off the dread pedal slightly as we see Ruben work through his precise morning routine of squats, pushups, fresh coffee, and gross smoothies. He delicately lulls Lou out of bed with the tapping of drumsticks, leading her into the kitchen for a healthy breakfast and coaxing her to embrace him through a warm, heartfelt dance to Commodores’ “This Love.” We get snippets of their intimate relationship—the pet names, the conversations, the ponderings of their childhood. Together, they’re rebuilding lives formerly colored by heroin use. You could be Ruben and almost be fooled into thinking things might be okay. But the reality breaks as they set up for their next show and a ringing pierces him, sending him reeling. Next, he’s back on his kit, looking more bewildered than ever as the ringing returns and all sound dampens. It’s like a bell tolling from the distance, an ominous sign of change to come. 

When Ruben wakes up in their Airstream the next morning, he doesn’t spring out of bed. He squeezes his nose and blows. His ears don’t pop. He moves his jaw, running through all the tricks I did as a Deaf kid to fool myself into hearing more. These are the tests you give yourself because you don’t want to tell anyone else yet. You don’t want it to feel real. You want to leave open the possibility that it’s all a misunderstanding. 


The most terrifying moment of my Deaf life came freshman year of college. I woke up one March morning, already 75% of the way into a school year packed with connections, heartbreak, and a weight gain stretching past the Freshman 15. Every morning, I’d put my hearing aid in last, allowing my hair and ear canals to dry, a period on a sentence I rewrote each day as I examined my identity within a hearing environment. It being an analog hearing aid full of power, sound would roar to life at the shut of the battery door. I wanted the power. I craved it. I needed it. But that morning, the power sat beneath several layers of muffle. I could barely hear anything around me. 

Like Ruben, I did a series of self-tests, clicking inside my mouth and making guttural sounds I felt myself reaching further and further to hear. I blew out the hearing aid tubes, hoping for a simple blockage. I set it on the heater, hoping it was just moisture. Nothing worked. An emergency appointment with my audiologist provided only a shrug and no answers. I called my mother back, barely able to hear any words of assurance, and saw that my tears had flooded the keypad of my flip phone. I stayed in my dorm room all day, lights off. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I didn’t want questions about what was and what would be. It wasn’t until my mother and I went to get a second audiologist’s opinion, way out in the valley, a physical and mental final grasp for an answer, that we were told it was, in fact, just my hearing aid. I was given a loaner and the sound flooded back in. I’ll never forget the sheer, day-long panic, just as I’ll never forget the hug my mother and I shared in the parking lot, a release of tension and tears. I recently looked up this exact route, the longest car ride of my life, and was shocked to find that it was only a nine-mile and 11-minute trip. Perhaps psychological time stretches and distorts even further when your entire identity is in crisis. 

I was not terrified of being Deaf. I knew what it felt like. I liked how it felt, even with all its particular challenges. What terrified me was losing the life I’d worked so hard to establish, and the many future years I’d spend having to explain this new life of mine to confused people. I thought about Dave, the cafeteria cook I worked with, who looked like Tim Curry from Muppet Treasure Island and made jokes that I was too young to appreciate and too deaf to fully understand. I thought about my English professors who kindly and patiently talked with me about fiction, and my papers, as I stared at their lips. I thought about the girl who taught me the word confabulate before becoming a ghost of heartbreak. I thought about Jim James’s ethereal voice leading an angelic burst of harmonies on My Morning Jacket’s “Wordless Chorus,” and the way it buoyed the hardest of days. My world felt smaller that day because the world I’d built around me felt impossible to navigate without a hearing aid. It would be another seven years before I set foot in Austin, in a growing bubble of a world where Deaf people are the majority and ASL is the communicative expectation. Another seven years before I knew what it was like to be comfortable in silence. 


Any Deaf person who’s ever taken a hearing test in an audiology booth knows exactly how terrifying this moment is. Ruben is once again bathed in darkness, much like the opening scene of the film. These tests quickly become psychological. You want to do well. You know this is a test you won’t pass, but you’d like to at least not fail too badly. You think you hear something but you’re hesitant to push the button because you don’t want it to look like you’re cheating or chasing auditory ghosts. Just as we sense Ruben’s desolate frustration, Marder shows us the other side of the equation when we can clearly see the words the audiologist is feeding him and how Ruben is whiffing with his guesses. We can also, rather heartbreakingly, see when he’s not even hearing the words at all. Riz Ahmed’s performance throughout the film is an incredible one, and in this scene he nails the desperation of being miles away from wherever you want to be, and the last to know that the train has already left the station. 

But Ruben cannot be deaf. His music, and especially his music during sobriety, helped mask whatever gnawing restlessness led him to heroin abuse. Without it, he only has Lou. And what is he to Lou if he’s not a loving drummer ferrying her dream through their Airstream tour? So of course, when the doctor leaves him with a final warning to prioritize protecting the hearing he has left, the next shot has him right back at a concert, playing again. He looks even more frazzled, like he’s drumming on air, trying to hit through an imaginary barrier, to break on through to the other side of a previous, safer life. But the ringing returns and Ruben leaves in the middle of a song, unable to breathe. The sound cuts out as Lou confronts him and you can sense a day’s worth of panic—much like I experienced that day in college—threaten to pour out as he breaks the news. The crack in the dream from the opening scenes widens, and the entire thing is about to crumble. 

Next, they’re in a diner and Ruben’s entire body language is that of a panicked, hurting addict. When he gets on the phone with their sponsor, Ruben doesn’t even give the man a chance to speak, knowing there’s no way he’ll hear him and not wanting to accept that reality. “You’d tell me serenity is something you get when you, uh, stop wishing for a different past,” he says, a flurry of compressed words and thoughts in search of a resolution that doesn’t exist. But Sound of Metal shows that’s only part of the equation. Serenity comes from understanding your authentic self and having a community around you that supports that. It comes from letting go of the narratives of past lives that no longer serve you. And some people never find that place. 

As Ruben keeps trying to talk his way through implants and all kinds of answers that no longer exist, the camera lingers on Lou, with Olivia Cooke masterfully portraying all the unspoken truths they’ll both have to accept. She recognizes that life as they once knew it has ended. They can no longer mask each other’s deeper issues. The real work begins all over again. 


In 1987, U2 released their landmark album, The Joshua Tree. There’s a song on it called “Running to Stand Still,” a phrase Bono originally heard from his brother as he described his struggling business. The song is about a heroin-addicted man and woman, and was inspired by Bono’s learning of a man who once continued to smuggle heroin into Dublin despite the threat of lifelong imprisonment. “Because for a lot of people, there are no physical doors open anymore,” he told Hot Press in 1987. “And so if you can’t change the world you’re living in, seeing through different eyes is the only alternative.” In this case, Bono is describing heroin as the lens through which to view the world differently, but a visit to a Deaf sober house forces Lou to realize something far different. It means her going back to Paris, to a father she struggles to connect with but is her only remaining unburned bridge. And it means Ruben stepping, alone, into a Deaf community he’s determined not to be a part of. For U2’s recovering addicts, the title of the song means spending great deals of energy, sweat, and tears only to get nowhere. But now the title of the song means something else entirely: the work they’ll have to do to find internal serenity. 

When Ruben first meets Joe (Paul Raci), the head of the Deaf sober house, he’s asked if he’s thought about using since losing his hearing. Ruben closes his eyes, thinking about it. We know he’s thought about it. “Today is not a good day,” he finally responds. “I’m not thinking clear today.” Joe tells Ruben about how he lost his hearing in the Vietnam War, and how he subsequently lost his wife and kid. He can see Ruben start to do the math. “Not because of being deaf, mind you, Ruben. It was the beer.” He later emphasizes: “It’s very important, if you want to be here, to understand that we’re looking for a solution to this,” pointing to his head. Then, pointing to his ears: “Not this.” Later, as their daily chores are laid out for the members, Ruben is given one very specific job: learn how to be Deaf. 

When Ruben attends his first 12-step meeting at the sober house, Joe leads with the Serenity Prayer, laying out Ruben’s journey for the rest of the movie: to accept the things he cannot change, to have the courage to change the things he can, and to develop the wisdom to know the difference. For so many people, so much of what makes a recovery successful is the fellowship. Being able to share your story with others who understand the experiences you’ve had. Opportunities for this are increasingly dire for those in the Deaf community. When you’re already feeling vulnerable as a recovering addict, it’s another layer of vulnerability you must contend with to share your story amongst a group of hearing people. Here, everyone is Deaf. Sitting right next to Ruben is Shaheem (Shaheem Sanchez), another recovering heroin addict, and yet Ruben is not ready to admit how similar their situations may be. It’s a fitting choice by Marder to not subtitle the ASL until Ruben makes an effort and a clear choice to be a part of the community. 

When Joe brings Ruben to visit the local school for the Deaf, the teacher, Diane (a warm and empathetic Lauren Ridloff), asks his name. Ruben is baffled, so she writes her name on the board and fingerspells it in ASL. She hands Ruben the marker to write his own name, and he writes it big and wild like graffiti, drawing giggles from the young crowd. This isn’t just his name—this is how he wants to be seen. As bigger than life. An artistic free spirit. A beat bursting throughout a song. But it only emphasizes how small he feels, how little he truly knows about himself. Diane patiently gets the kids to follow along and help teach Ruben how to fingerspell his name. Here, she shows, we’re all the same. We each have a name and an identity to be forged. 

Ruben later has a breakthrough with one of Diane’s students, a young boy with similar restless, anxious energy, pulling him away to the playground outside to reset. As Ruben sits on the bottom of the metal slide, unsure of exactly what to do, the student works his way to the top and taps it. Ruben taps back twice, giving him something to play with. The boy repeats it, then he straightens up, game for the interplay. The boy lays his head down, absorbing the rhythm through the side of his face. For once, he looks completely at peace. It’s a peace Ruben longs for, a startling connection between two Deaf people, a conversation centered around a different sound of metal. 

It also awakens something in him, as the movie subsequently dances through Ruben connecting with the students and staff with ease. He becomes more engaged in his ASL classes (energetically led by Jeremy Lee Stone), furiously demanding a rematch when he loses an alphabet fingerspelling race. It’s only then, with Ruben’s engagement, that the ASL subtitles finally kick in. He connects with one of the Deaf members, Jenn (a fantastic Chelsea Lee), over a tattoo he designs for her, picking up enough to be able to joke about the size of the drawn woman’s bush. Next, he’s back in class, drumming away with the students, a smile and energy to him we never even saw with his band. 

Perhaps you can see where the movie may go from here. In many other parallel universes, Ruben would buy into the Deaf community wholly and become an undeniable success story. We’re further encouraged of this possible outcome when Joe comes to see Ruben, devoid of his usual restlessness as he looks out the patio window. Joe informs Ruben of how important he’s become to a lot of people, and asks him to consider a future with the house or at the school. But recovery is not a linear process. We see just how little trust Ruben has in his own identity, when, in the next scene, he’s sneaking back up into Joe’s office to check his email, stumbling into a video of Lou playing a solo show in Paris with a drum machine. She’s effectively reduced Ruben’s presence down to a different sound of metal. Ruben becomes restless again as he strides into the Airstream, thanks to another lie: spare keys hidden beside the gas cap. He gives himself a minute to absorb and sink into the ashes of the past. Then he jams throughout the night on his kit, desperate to play his way back into his former life. 


For most of my life, I was fed the narrative that deafness is something that can, and perhaps should, be fixed—or at least close to it. Cochlear implants hung like a specter above me throughout middle school, until doctors somehow decided that I had too much hearing to qualify—a baffling thing to be told when you’re the one deaf kid everywhere you go. But each new hearing aid promised more. More sounds. More clarity. More of a life almost like before, a life no four-year-old would ever remember. By the time I got my first digital hearing aid—an evolution that everyone promised would push me up an extra few arbitrary steps—I started to see the well-intended ruse. Each hearing aid would require my brain to adjust to the alien way of processing sound. And it would never, ever live up to the lie I was sold. What feels radical about Marder’s film is that while it may be written and made from a hearing perspective, it’s enormously empathetic to deafness in its many forms. It shows a beautiful, welcoming Deaf community for Ruben to collapse into and grow within. It shows the ways he can channel his drumming talents into the classroom and to calming others—like he does with the slide-tapping student. It shows many people who do not see deafness as a hindrance or anything to be fixed, but rather as an opportunity at a different life they grow to treasure. 


Ruben thinks stillness will come with these cochlear implants, and Marder cleverly shows us how Ruben’s path towards them looks no different from an addict looking to score. He sells everything of worth—his sound equipment, his drum set, the Airstream—and sets up an appointment that no one else knows about. We get a chance to see the sterile operation room as doctors cut into tissue and we’re reminded that this is no simple procedure; this is brain surgery. 

Ruben returns to the compound wearing two layers of deceit: a skullcap beneath a pulled-over hoodie. He has the look and gait of betrayal. When he comes inside, he runs into Joe, who’s waiting and ready. The facade quickly shatters as Joe asks basic questions and Ruben can’t help but spiral deeper and deeper, saying he’s just trying to save his life and that it doesn’t matter because if he disappears no one will care. They’re now so far from the moment on the porch when Joe reminded Ruben of the promise he showed everyone. 

But Joe recognizes that Ruben has made his choice. It would be easy to conclude that Joe kicks Ruben out simply because he got a cochlear implant. But it’s far deeper than that. “As you know, everybody here shares in the belief that being deaf is not a handicap,” he reminds Ruben. “All these kids…all of us, need to be reminded of it every day. And my house is a house built on that belief and built on trust. And when that trust is violated, things happen. And I can’t have that.” In the original script by Marder and his brother Abraham, Ruben roping Jenn into trading music equipment for cash leads to her overdosing. Even with that cut storyline, we can see how Ruben tugged Jenn into a more distrustful side of the world that she’d tried to carefully wade out of. Ruben never approached anyone in the house about his implant decision. That breaking of trust and transparency can lead addicts to relapse. Once he’s kicked out, Ruben dwells in a seedy hotel, waiting for his activation appointment. He carefully peels off the bandages dried to his head, revealing a familiar “S” scar behind each ear. The mirror doesn’t lie. So Ruben shaves the rest of his head. Still trying to be something else. Still trying to blend in. 

Just before Ruben returns for his activation, Marder leaves us with an ominous image: a thundercloud approaching behind telephone wires. Electricity and metal are about to mix and further confuse Ruben. He just doesn’t know it yet. There’s a timidity to him when he arrives at his appointment, a far cry from the ferocious drummer we first met. Marder and his team do a masterful job with the sound design and editing—which the film deservedly won Oscars for—as Ruben’s activation begins, and we can see through Ahmed’s performance just how each layer of sound manipulation demolishes him further. Sensing the sinking feeling, Ruben’s doctor explains to him how the implants trick his brain into thinking it’s actually hearing. It’s one wrecking ball to the insides after another. Whatever dream he held of recovering a previous life has been systematically destroyed. 


Recovery is a misnomer. You often can’t go back to what you once had. When Ruben arrives in Paris, it’s a last-ditch effort to reframe his life and identity once again. But he’s immediately hit with the cacophony of traffic and pedestrians, the busy European life. He’s far from the quiet, more inclusive pastures of the sober house he’s just burned himself out of. When Ruben finally sees Lou, she looks incredible. There’s a stillness to her miles away from their last moments together in the US. But even in their embrace, there’s a distance to Lou, the look of a woman who knows they should remain apart but can’t bring herself to push Ruben away again. 

That evening, Lou’s father plays piano while she sings in French, beautifully and gently. We can see on Ruben’s face the distance growing between him and Lou. The music distorts as Ruben listens, his face sinking as he realizes that they aren’t the same people they were before going on their own journeys, and it leaves him to wonder just who, after all this running, he’ll be when he’s standing still. Back in her room together, they cuddle like two people whose bodies know there’s nothing to salvage. When she begins to scratch her arm, the same spot we saw full of marks at the beginning of the movie, Ruben realizes that he has to be the one to break them up for good. “It’s okay,” he tells her. Lou’s face drops. “What’s okay?” she asks, knowing full well what he means but unable to find the words for it.

A big part of recovery is accepting truth while discarding narratives that no longer serve us. Ruben can see in Paris that Lou is better where she is. It’s a realization that only comes from the work he did at the sober house, the many mornings he spent writing at five in the morning with nothing but coffee and a donut, writing away the cobwebs of past identities. The next morning, the birds are back and the sounds of the city fill in as Ruben gets dressed. There’s a shot of a clown tattoo on his back, perhaps a reminder of a man who’s always tried to be someone else. When he walks through the city, the sound is just as aggressive and abrasive as before. And then he hears a church bell ringing high above, an auditory step too far, and takes off his implants. The warmth of the sun sneaks through the trees, peering down on him. He’s so at ease that he almost looks sleepy. Restlessness has, for just this moment, left his body. 

A few years ago, I was sold on getting a new digital hearing aid. Once again, big improvements were promised. Bluetooth technology, no feedback, even more water and sweat resistance…the list went on. But in order to qualify, I had to step back into that dreaded sound booth for another audiogram. A near-lifetime of audio test trauma came flooding back as I did my best—whatever that meant. When the evaluation ended and the massive, surely-bulletproof door opened, the audiologist could barely pull her jaw up off the floor. “Oh my god,” she said, “you’re so deaf!” She’d assumed, like so many others in my lifetime, that I had much more hearing. Could she have worded that sentiment a little differently? Definitely. But it genuinely changed the personal narrative that I’d so painstakingly put together. I finally understood the unreasonable expectations people had for my hearing, and why, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t ever quite approach them. Now I could shove a pretty wild audiogram in the faces of all those Deaf people who discriminated against me for not being Deaf enough, who assumed I was hearing, an unsubtle euphemism for not being fluent enough in my second language of ASL. After nearly 30 years of internal war, I felt like I could approach a harmonious identity. I felt like I could fucking breathe. I could take ownership of my own identity. I could find stillness with and without silence.

I have no idea where Ruben goes after the screen cuts to black. That’s the beauty of the film. It avoids the easy inspirational narrative by being honest. This isn’t a movie about not wanting to be deaf. This is a movie about recovering a feeling of stillness in the world. That stillness doesn’t just come from the environment, be it Paris or a show in Missouri. That stillness begins within, once you can find a way to be comfortable with all the different parts of you that make you who you are.