Review: ‘Sound of Metal’ explores the reverberations of fundamental change

Natalie Duerr, news staff

The film “Sound of Metal” opens with an intense heavy metal concert set and ends in absolute silence. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) are the two members of the rising metal duo, Blackgammon, but their tour and growing fame come to an abrupt halt when Ruben loses his hearing. A doctor advises him to avoid all loud noises to preserve what is left, but how can he do that as a drummer? Not heeding the doctor’s warning, Ruben loses his hearing entirely at the next show and his sense of self and sobriety hang by a thread. The fundamental aspects of how he sees himself in the world, as a drummer and musician, can no longer exist in the way they used to.

Instead of the “inspiration porn” route stories with disabled characters often take, Darius and Abraham Marder’s “Sound of Metal” presents the richness of the deaf community that hearing people have evaded. The hearing community may hide behind their words, but the deaf community has a visceral way of communicating. The film lets the viewer catch a glimpse of the world they have made for themselves while following Ruben’s journey.

Ruben and Lou must separate as he moves into community housing for those who are deaf and have struggled with addiction. At first, he is still incredibly isolated. Ruben hasn’t learned sign language yet and cannot communicate with most of his new community. He continually tries to talk to them, often forgetting that they are deaf and cannot hear him. Ruben attends school with young students and learns American Sign Language alongside them. Initially, he is reluctant to learn and justifiably upset at his change of circumstances. The audience watches him blossom into a mentor for these children, at one point creating a drumming session for the class, racing others to sign the alphabet and giving a tattoo to a new friend.

When he and Lou finally reunite, Lou hasn’t learned a lick of sign language. Though it is unclear how long they’ve been apart, she didn’t spend one moment thinking about how she could adjust to his different abilities. She always assumed he would get an invasive surgery and nothing would have to change for her. It isn’t until Ruben tries to re-immerse himself in his old circle that he realizes he can’t look back anymore —  only move forward, even if that means continuing without Lou.

While the film celebrates the deaf community, it also makes itself more accessible with open captions that include dialogue and environmental sound descriptions. When watching films at home, closed captions, which have to be turned on, are often an option. Still, it is an additional effort to get closed captioning devices that can be faulty, disruptive or inaccessible at theaters. 

No matter where or how you see it, “Sound of Metal” will have open captions, meaning the captions are always in view. Open captions create a superior experience for deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers, people with autism, people with attention deficit disorders and people who speak English as a second language, all of whom are often at the back of creators’ minds. 

Sound designer Nicolas Becker creates a unique auditory experience, from capturing the slightest drip and muddled words to creating an imitation of the sound generated by cochlear implants to give those who can hear a chance to experience Ruben’s world.

“Sound of Metal” is ultimately an empathetic exploration of outgrowing your environment and taking root somewhere new. The film makes the case to embrace uncontrollable change and grow with it instead of fighting to go back to the way things were before. With an incredible performance by Riz Ahmed, distinctive sound design and a story that is universal in emotion, “Sound of Metal” is a must-watch this holiday season and beyond.

“Sound of Metal” is now in theaters and is available on Prime Video.