His life was about noise until it wasn’t. Heavy metal music, to be specific, and he is Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer and half of the band, Backgammon. His cymbal crashes are shattering, and his beats are pulsating. His girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cook), is the singer/screamer. She has bleached eyebrows, a series of parallel scar tissue on her wrist, and an itch in her arm where the needle used to go.
Both Ruben and Lou are in recovery: Four years sober. Heroin was Ruben’s drug of choice—though he says nothing was off the table—and we assume the same for Lou. They’re both healing together, in an airstream trailer they use to tour around the country. It’s also their home and recording studio. It takes discipline to live and work with another human being in cramped quarters, but discipline seems to be the only thing holding Ruben together. From daily exercises to healthy eating, he and Lou are on the right path despite how shaky the ground beneath feels. Then, one day, the sound drops out. Ruben has gone deaf.
Maybe it’s the exposure to loud music night after night, or maybe it’s an autoimmune disease, the doctor (Tom Kemp) tells Ruben. Regardless, he’s lost 75% of his hearing. “How do we fix it,” Ruben asks. Well, there’s surgery and implants, but it’s expensive and— “Do you have the units in stock?” Ruben interrupts. We know Ruben can’t hear, but we didn’t know Ruben couldn’t also listen.
Sound of Metal, from director Darius Marder, is less about Ruben’s hearing loss and more about the long road to recovery. It’s understandable why a musician would be so desperate to regain a tool crucial to his life and work. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Ruben’s need to regain his hearing is synonymous with his need to reclaim control and stay sober. Valid, but it also closes him off to the journey before him. “Sit still,” the owner of a deaf halfway house Ruben comes to stay at says. “And when you can’t sit, write.”
He’s Joe (Paul Raci), a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing while serving in Vietnam. Ruben sees him as an obstacle, but viewers will recognize Joe as the movie’s soul. He preaches acceptance, offers guidance and direction. When Joe finds Ruben fixing loose shingles on the house, he tells him to stop. “There’s nothing here you need to fix,” Joe says. “Except you.”
It takes Ruben the entirety of the movie to learn that lesson. It takes some people I know their entire lifetime to do the same. It’ll take Lou a while, too. She’s got her own demons, and though we don’t spend much time with her, we glimpse enough to understand.
Written by Marder and his brother Abraham, from a story by Derek Cianfrance, Sound of Metal is about the struggle of understanding and the need to surrender before that can happen. Faith runs just below the surface of Sound of Metal, bubbling up in critical moments. Frankly, they keep the movie from falling into despair.
Sound of Metal is a powerful movie, largely due to the incredible work from the sound department. From dialogue dropping out in key moments to muffled ambient noises to digital distortion and silence, Sound of Metal has an immersive quality. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s grating and aggravating. In at least one instance, it’s used for comic effect. And it works wonders. If the what is about the rough road to recovery, the how of Sound of Metal places you in Ruben’s shoes and lets you walk around for two ear-opening hours. Wear headphones when you watch.
Sound of Metal (2020)
Directed by Darius Marder
Written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder from a story by Derek Cianfrance
Produced by Sacha Ben Harroche, Bert Hamelinck
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Tom Kemp, Mathieu Amalric
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 130 minutes, Opens in select theaters Nov. 20 and on Amazon Prime Dec. 4.