Review: ‘Sound of Metal,’ starring Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke

November 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Sound of Metal”

Directed by Darius Marder

Some language in French with captions

Culture Representation: Taking place in the various parts of United States, the dramatic film “Sound of Metal” features a predominantly white cast (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A drummer in an industrial rock band loses his hearing and reluctantly moves into a group home for deaf people while secretly planning to break the home’s rules of getting surgery to try to regain his sense of hearing.

Culture Audience: “Sound of Metal” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about people dealing with physical and emotional challenges.

Pictured clockwise from left to right: Paul Raci, Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke in “Sound of Metal” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The absorbing and riveting drama “Sound of Metal” takes viewers on a topsy-turvy journey showing what it’s like to become deaf and how it completely alters the course of someone’s life. The movie’s outstanding sound editing and sound mixing completely immerse viewers into the experience of going between the world of people who have all of their hearing abilities and the world of people who are hearing-impaired. These two worlds are inhabited by the same person in “Sound of Metal,” which has superb acting from the cast members, who are from the hearing and deaf communities. It’s the type of movie that will have an impact on anyone who watches it.

Directed by Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Abraham Marder, “Sound of Metal” has frequent captions that appear on screen to describe background noises, as if the filmmakers were aware that many hearing-impaired people would be watching this movie. According to “The Sound of Metal” production notes, Darius Marder conceived the movie’s sound, while sound designer Nicolas Becker carried out what Darius Marder had in mind. There is no other movie released in 2020 that has more memorable, Oscar-worthy sound techniques than “Sound of Metal.”

The central character of the story is Ruben Stone, a heavily tattooed drummer for an alternative rock duo called Blackgammon, whose music is best described as post-industrial heavy metal. Blackgammon is self-financed and releases music independently. The music isn’t about melody but about conveying gloomy angst with loud, screeching guitar riffs and lots of amplifier feedback.

By any standard, Blackgammon’s music is hard on the ears. And it seems that Ruben has been playing this music without earplugs for years. Even when he starts to lose his hearing, he doesn’t wear earplugs. It’s later revealed in the story that Ruben is a recovering drug addict (heroin was his drug of choice) who’s been sober for the past four years.

Ruben’s live-in girlfriend Louise Berger (played by Olivia Cooke), nicknamed Lou and sometimes called Lulu by Ruben, is the lead singer/guitarist of Blackgammon. Lou is in her mid-to-late-20s and is about 10 years younger than Ruben. They live together in an Airstream RV, which also doubles as their tour bus. Ruben owns the RV and he does the driving. It’s unclear how long Ruben and Lou have been together as a couple or as band members. And it’s also not revealed how Lou and Ruben met, but it’s implied in the story that it’s been at least two years since they’ve been in each other’s lives.

Ruben and Lou have an easygoing relationship that suggests that they became friends first before they became lovers. He clearly adores her and dotes on her, because he’s the type of boyfriend who will make breakfast for her. Lou is more of the scheduler and planner in the relationship. She says later in the movie that she’s the band’s manager. And there are signs that Ruben is more of a “dreamer,” while Lou is more of a “realist.”

Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Lou comes from a wealthy family. Her decision to become the lead singer of a very non-commercial band that plays seedy bars and nightclubs has put a strain on her relationship with her divorced father Richard Berger (played by Mathieu Amalric), who lives in his native France. Lou’s parents divorced when she was a child, and she was raised by her mother in America. Tragically, Lou’s mother committed suicide, but it’s not made clear in the movie at what age Lou was when this tragedy happened. It seems to have occurred when Lou was under the age of 18.

As for Ruben’s family background, he was raised by a single mother too, but he never knew his father. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Ruben and Lou are in their bus, and he tells her that he used to imagine that Jeff Goldblum was his long-lost father, because Ruben thinks that he looks a lot like Goldbum. Ruben comments that he’s a fan of Goldblum, but if it were possible for Goldblum to be his father, it “explains a lot because the dude’s fucking weird.” Lou says that she used to think about her funeral in math class when she was in school.

This scene demonstrates that Ruben and Lou both have offbeat senses of humor, which is part of their attraction to each other. And based on their family histories and some of the things that happen later in the story, it’s also clear that there’s a “lost soul” aspect to their personalities. They want someone to fill a void, and they both found each other at the right moment to be that person for the other one in the relationship.

But their relationship is about to be tested in a big way, when Ruben discovers that he’s losing his hearing. At first, he seems to be in denial about it and he doesn’t tell Lou. However, Ruben seeks medical treatment and does hearing tests to find out what the problem is. The diagnosis isn’t good. His right ear has only 28% hearing capacity, while his left ear has only 24% hearing capacity.

The doctor tells Ruben that he must eliminate all exposure to loud noises. And when Ruben asks if there is any way to get his hearing back, the doctor says that cochlea implant surgery are possible, but it’s not covered by health insurance. And the cost of the surgery is about $40,000 to $80,000, which is money that Ruben does not have.

Ruben decides to continue life as he knows it and refuses to think about his career as a musician being over. He also decides he’s going to find a way to get enough money for the ear surgery. One night, while Blackgammon is performing at a nightclub, Ruben’s hearing problems become too difficult for him to bear. He walks off of the stage in the middle of the performance. Lou follows him outside, and that’s when Ruben tells her that he’s going deaf and about the ear surgery that he wants to have.

Lou’s immediate reaction is to help Ruben as much as possible. They had plans to do a tour and record an album, but Lou wants to cancel those plans and put Ruben’s health first. Ruben vehemently disagrees (perhaps because he’s still in denial about how serious his hearing problem is) and they argue about it. However, Ruben agrees to accompany Lou to a sober-living group home for deaf people to get information about the home and see if he would like to live there.

The group home’s manager is a tough-but-tender recovering alcoholic named Joe (played by Paul Raci), who’s a Vietnam War veteran who became deaf when a bomb went off near him during the war. Joe is welcoming to Ruben and Lou, but he is very clear that he will enforce the house’s strict rules for the residents, who are not allowed to have visitors or communicate with anyone outside the home. (Residents’ cell phones are confiscated when they check into this home.)

Ruben seems somewhat open to living in this home until he hears about the house rules. He thanks Joe for his time but says that the living arrangements aren’t acceptable and he won’t be staying there. However, Lou gives Ruben no choice but to stay in the group home when she suddenly makes plans to go away and tells Ruben that she will end their relationship if he doesn’t live in the group home and get the help that he needs.

Ruben is stunned and heartsick about Lou’s decision, but he doesn’t want to lose her, so he agrees to the plan. (The scene where Ruben and Lou say goodbye before she leaves for the airport is one of the best scenes in the film.) Ruben immediately feels like an outsider in the group home because he’s the only one who doesn’t know sign language. He will eventually learn American Sign Language (ASL), but in the back of his mind he has three goals: (1) Graduate from the house program; (2) Reunite with Lou; and (3) Get enough money to pay for the ear surgery.

During his stay in the group home, Ruben learns a lot more than sign language. He learns that that he’s not the worthless human being that he believed he was for most of his life. Part of the house program includes interacting with deaf students who are about 7 to 9 years old. Ruben attends their sign-language classes, which are led by a pretty and friendly teacher named Diane (played by Lauren Ridloff), who is patient and kind when teaching all of her students. (Ridloff and the students in the movie are deaf in real life.)

Ruben eventually uses his skills as a musician to bond with the children. It should come as no surprise that he eventually leads a drumming class for the students, with Diane also participating. And in order for Ruben to get in touch with his feelings, Joe tells Ruben to write down as much as he can.

As for the other group residents, they and Ruben take a while to get to know each other. Ruben keeps mostly to himself, but he ends up developing a friendship of sorts with a young lesbian named Jenn (played by Chelsea Lee), who asks Ruben to tattoo a naked woman on one of her back shoulders. Lou secretly keeps tabs on what Lou is doing by using the computer in Joe’s office and looking at social media.

Ahmed gives a stunning performance in depicting Ruben’s emotional trials and tribulations. The movie goes back and forth in depicting the sounds of what people with full hearing capabilities can hear in contrast to the sounds (or lack thereof) that Ruben experiences as he gradually goes deaf. It’s a transformation that will give people with full hearing abilities a greater understanding of the terror and isolation that someone must feel over hearing loss.

There’s also an overwhelming sense of powerlessness from Ruben, who knows that what’s happening is beyond his control and will permanently change the way he experiences the world, how he can communicate with other people, and how other people communicate with him. And if you factor in that Ruben is struggling with addiction issues, the movie will leave viewers on edge in seeing if Ruben will relapse or not during this new health crisis in his life. And there’s also the question if Lou will want to stay in the relationship with Ruben.

What “Sound of Metal” thankfully does not do is present deafness as something that should warrant pity. And it’s a condition that does not doom people to being less than fully formed human beings. One of the best things about the movie is that it shows how that Ruben’s gradual hearing loss actually forces him to look deep inside of himself and come to terms with who he is and how much he wants this hearing loss to define or change him.

It’s not an easy process, and Ruben goes through a lot of turmoil during this emotional journey. And as difficult as it must be for anyone in the group home to be cut off from their loved ones and the outside world, it’s a rule that seems understandable in the sense that loved ones could intentionally or unintentionally bring distractions or other baggage in the self-healing process. However, Ruben has a rebellious streak and defies the rules by sneaking off to use Joe’s computer to maintain some kind of online connection with Lou.

Cooke’s portrayal of Lou is also admirable in the way she depicts how she is also deeply affected by Ruben’s hearing loss. Although Lou isn’t in most of the movie, her presence is felt throughout the story because she’s the catalyst and motivation for Ruben trying to find a positive and healthy way to adjust to his new life as a deaf person. The movie shows what happens to Ruben and Lou as a couple in their touching love story.

According to the production notes for “Sound of Metal,” the movie was inspired in part by director Darius Marder’s deaf paternal grandmother, as well his editing work on director Derek Cianfrance’s unfinished docudrama “Metalhead,” about a real-life husband-and-wife rock duo named Jucifer and the husband’s struggle with hearing loss. Darius Marder also consulted with numerous members of the deaf community (ASL instructor Jeremy Stone was a chief consultant) to ensure accuracy in the film. All of that authenticity and acute attention to detail shine through in the movie.

The sounds and the silence are almost like other characters in the film. Muffled or garbled sounds that signal Ruben’s aural deterioration can also weigh heavily on his emotions. The silence of deafness unforgivingly limits Ruben’s world with invisible barriers but also unexpectedly opens up his world to new possibilities. Ruben finds that he has to rely on other senses and pay more attention to his surroundings and his inner rhythms when he can no longer depend on his hearing. More than anything, “Sound of Metal” is a great example of how losing the ability to hear doesn’t make anyone less of a person. And sometimes the best thing to listen to is one’s own instinct and conscience.

Amazon Studios released “Sound of Metal” in select U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020. The movie’s Amazon Prime Video premiere is on December 4, 2020.