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'Sound of Metal' (2020) Review: A Symphony of Auditory Annihilation

Chris is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and a writer/contributor at Bounding into Comics and God Hates Geeks.

The official poster/key art for, "Sound of Metal."

The official poster/key art for, "Sound of Metal."

The Stillness of Life is the Kingdom of God

The drama Sound of Metal is directed and co-written by Darien Marder and also co-written by Derek Cianfrance (director of The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine) and Abraham Marder. The film follows Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke), the drummer and singer of a metal band known as Blackgammon. While on tour, Ruben begins to lose his hearing and his life potentially falls apart.

There’s this dependency between Ruben and Lou in Sound of Metal. Ruben has been clean for four years, the amount of time the two have known each other and have been romantically involved. But Ruben is also a former drug addict. The two travel the country together in an RV with all of their belongings and only themselves to latch on to.

In a way, Ruben swaps one addiction for another in Sound of Metal. He kicks the heroin habit, but exchanges it for his reliability on Lou. She’s there when he wakes up, she’s there when he looks up from his drum kit on stage, and she even wants to do what’s best for him when he loses his hearing. But it’s because of this that their performances are also intertwined. Olivia Cooke has less screen time than Riz Ahmed, but her being on screen effects the both of them.

While watching Sound of Metal, we as the audience are very much in Ruben’s headspace. Ruben loses his cool a lot and nearly bursts into tears just as often, but it’s the sound mixing of the film that really sells this. The film begins with muffled screaming vocals and quickly evolves into high pitched ringing. Every audio noise is drowned out almost completely after that forcing everyone around Ruben to write down what they want to say if they want him to understand. That absence of sound soon becomes this metallic and static-infused distortion with an abnormally high pitch; like an out of tune radio station.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone.

Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone.

You get to experience hearing loss throughout the course of the film and it’s as miraculous as it is horrifying. The audience experiencing Ruben’s dysfunctional ears is only part of the charm of Sound of Metal. The film is also masterful in the way it shows you how Ruben hears things in his everyday life immediately followed by how someone would hear them normally; playing the drums, the slide, and talking to someone on an intercom are all simple tasks people with healthy ears take for granted.

You admire the story that’s unfolding in Sound of Metal and the performances are outstanding, but Ruben does seem to go through the seven stages of grief throughout the film. Here’s a brief look at those seven stages along with relevant examples.

Olivia Cooke as Lou.

Olivia Cooke as Lou.

  • Denial - Ruben tries to function normally and keeps playing drums despite his hearing loss.
  • Pain/Guilt – Lou leaves to try to help Ruben’s progress and Ruben feels lost when he doesn’t know sign language while staying at the deaf community.
  • Anger/Bargaining – Ruben trashes his music equipment in his RV and punches a donut to death in Joe’s (the man in charge of the deaf community) study.
  • Depression – Ruben sees Lou performing without him. He feels like his life is wasting away when life at the deaf community could potentially be his future.
  • Upward Turn – Ruben sells what’s dear to him to pay for surgery.
  • Acceptance/Hope – Ruben learns to find the solace in silence. He’s finally comfortable with the stillness Joe mentioned earlier on.

Ruben keeps trying to latch onto the life he wanted to live before something completely changed his life and it just doesn’t work anymore. Being forced to live in a deaf community seems stupid at first, but Ruben adjusts and seems to enjoy himself. That’s what scares him into pulling the trigger on the surgery. He always saw this as something that could be fixed, but scars don’t always heal the way they’re supposed to.

Paul Raci as Joe.

Paul Raci as Joe.

The ending of Sound of Metal is so incredibly satisfying. Everything around us is just this obnoxious and noisy cacophony. The world’s most beautiful symphony is utter and complete silence. Sound of Metal is a film about a man whose life is initially altered for the worse, but is somewhat enlightening in the long run. You feel what Ruben feels, but also see the concern on Lou’s face and witness the heartbreak in Joe’s (Paul Raci) mouth when he speaks. Brilliantly acted with a powerful message that leaves a colossal impact, Sound of Metal is an ingeniously harrowing film that should not be missed.

© 2020 Chris Sawin