On Deaf Ears

In the deeply empathetic ‘Sound of Metal,’ a heavy-metal drummer suddenly loses his hearing

Sound of Metal wasn’t meant for pandemic times, but its brilliantly bracing look at a disrupted life makes it an oddly perfect 2020 film. Imagine that, suddenly, you can’t hear anymore. And you’re a heavy-metal drummer. Your whole career, your whole sense of self, depends on your ears, but they no longer work.

What happens when destiny hits you sideways? When an ailment capsizes your reality? Like the best works of art, Darius Marder’s riveting drama feels both of-the-moment and absolutely timeless. It’s about freefall. And grief. Redefining what you thought was normal. Then learning how to accept it.

SOUND OF METAL ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Darius Marder
Written by: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric
Running time: 120 min


Acceptance is already a struggle for drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed), a recovering addict who’s kept his heroin use in check for the past four years. It’s no coincidence that that’s also the exact same amount of time he’s been with Lou (Olivia Cooke), a singer who’s had her own struggles with self-harm. They’ve got a solid heavy metal band called Blackgammon which lands them on niche magazine covers and generates steady club gigs across the country. Together, they’re not only functional; they’re thriving.

The hand-to-mouth tour schedule is idyllic for the nomadic duo, leaving no roots as they nestle in their Airstream. And even though they play aggressive and primal songs, their relationship is downright tender. They channel their despair into music and stay clean. It’s a rock-in-roll lifestyle belied by spinach smoothies and shelves of books. It’s onstage rage and offstage bliss.

Then silence hits. Befittingly, Marder subtitles the film throughout, and the moments of Ruben’s sudden, then sustained, deafness get their own subtitles. [Music muffles], it first reads when his hearing drops out. The brackets soon reappear: [Muffled whirring], [Muffled dripping], [Muffled speaking]. The film’s expressionistic audio design in these scenes is arresting, not only giving audiences a visceral sense of Ruben’s situation but also firmly reasserting cinema’s strength as an immersive experience.

An audiologist confirms the loss: Ruben is missing 70%-80% of the words people say. It might be an exposure to loud noise—there goes his career—or it might be an autoimmune issue. Either way, the result is the same. “Your hearing is deteriorating rapidly,” says the doc.

Ruben is obstinate that he can overcome the problem. Cochlear implants? They’re $40,000-$80,000, and health insurance doesn’t cover it. “I can fix this,” he keeps saying. “I’ll fix this.” Lou is despondent; she knows better. She also notices that he’s smoking again, a slippery slope, so she contacts Ruben’s sponsor for help. He guides them to a deaf community with a rehabilitation center run by a former alcoholic named Joe (Paul Raci), who invites Ruben to live at their campus. They don’t allow Lou to join him, which is fine with her. She knows that if they stay together, she might hurt herself again. And that’s when the movie really begins.

Sound of Metal shows how people create support systems that are more about coping than healing. And healing is essential. Although Ruben is strong-willed and hot-headed, he can adapt when he’s backed into a corner. He’s still young, and he’s a quick study. He’s capable of change—we all are—but it’s the hard work of letting go that arrests true transformation.

At the deaf center, the residents all pitch in with daily maintenance. On the chore board, Joe writes down Ruben’s task: LEARN HOW TO BE DEAF. He could have written SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR PAST or even ACCEPT YOUR FATE. Because nothing will ever be the same.

Intensely committed and in virtually every frame, Ahmed defines the film with his steely resolve. Ruben refuses to lose his old life, but life refuses to change back. Even more profound is Raci’s performance as Joe. He brings such deep wells of compassion, and anguish, to his role as a Vietnam vet who lost his hearing from a wartime explosion and let drinking destroy his life. This is a man who has seen too much of human nature to be fooled easily. “I gotta do something,” Ruben tells Joe in a confessional scene. “Trying to save my fucking life.” Joe looks back with profound sadness. “Have you had any moments of…stillness?” he asks.

It’s Ruben’s story, but every character feels fully expressed, even minor characters. Lou technically has limited screen time, but she looms large, and her own personal journey offscreen feels like it could fill its own movie. Joe is vivid portrait of redemption. And Lauren Ridloff, as a deaf schoolteacher named Diane, has an open face and kind patience with Ruben that hints at greater depths. Sound of Metal is a generous film that examines troubled people in troubled times with a wisdom that’s too rare and deeply welcome. At the very end, the final scene offers one more bracketed subtitle: [Silence]. It could just as easily be: [Peace].

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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