This is the shelf of vinyl record covers in a record store, representing the importance of music in "Sound of Metal".
Mick Haupt

“No one else is going to save my life. Right? If I just sit here and diddle around, what am I going to have? Nothing.”

It’s strange, everyone is aware that being abled-bodied isn’t a permanent state of being, that as we age, we break down but, most seem to forget. However, it’s understandable because it’s largely a uniform way of thinking. So, as the mindless activities we do start shifting from natural acts to luxuries, it can be traumatizing. Except, walking down a familiar street way with your favourite restaurants, during which you can also turn to music, isn’t something you’re entitled to. When those routines are almost made impossible, it provides an opportunity for an unexpected victory, one that others might categorize as a misfortune. Sound of Metal is one understated movie that carefully presents this idea as a possibility.

Riz-Ahmed is Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer and a recovering addict, who begins to lose his hearing and a lifestyle he’d become accustomed to. You see, Ruben had aligned his identity with his job. He’d adorned his body with tattoos, a mean haircut, clothing, piercings, and a stoic disposition to alert everyone about his affiliation with the rock/metal scene. And so, when he’s forced to change, his identity breaks down. He’s actually more eclectic in taste and style but because he decided to associate his entire lifestyle to this profession, when he’s confronted with the idea of change, it’s very difficult for him to make that transition.

Sound of Metal is muted. It’s slow, very slow-burning, and needy. Sometimes it’s also boring and the plot can drag. It requires so much patience because it’s ultimately measured to develop alongside Ruben. Perhaps, to orchestrate a connection between the audience and Ruben, there’s little music to underscore scenes. Instead, we hear things either as Ruben would or how he might have imagined events to unfold. So, the film weighs between accounting for what is happening to Ruben, to seeing things directly from his perspective, adding a personal and intimate touch to the viewing experience.

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When Ruben first realizes the weight of his declining health, he’s monstrous. He’s so angry and filled with rage, the audience can almost get a sense of his distress alongside him—or at least imagine what he feels. After all, his whole life became his music, mostly because he was creating it with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), so when he’s not able to continue on as usual, his heart is broken. It’s actually very interesting to see how much of the caricatured version of Ruben is rooted in his relationship with Lou. Yet, to recover and learn how to function within his new identity, he has to separate from her and go to a deaf community that’s designed to help recovering addicts to be comfortable as newly deaf people and to be OK with it.

It’s one of those films where you need to watch the entire thing to better understand it’s magic. You can’t simply watch say 30 minutes and decide to stop. It’s abstract. It’s designed to be watched in its entirety before it’s judged. As such, the highpoints of Sound of Metal come closer to its end, around the time when things are falling apart for Ruben, and he’s forced to make a decision about who he wants to be. The ending really ties everything together so it’s worth watching to get there.

Eventually though, we learn that the film isn’t trying to be a simple drama, it’s philosophical. For instance, Ruben is astute on how his actions can be interpreted. He isn’t naïve to the fact that he’s just doing things to distract from the staleness of his life. Everything he does is intentional. He highlights this to Joe, the program director of his deaf community, when trying to explain why he felt it was important to get his hearing back. “No one else is going to save my life. Right? If I just sit here and diddle around, what am I going to have? Nothing,” he said. “Then all this s***! Like, what does it matter?… It passes. If I disappear like who cares?”

Screenwriters Darius Marder and Abraham Marder are very clever in the ways they entwine Ruben’s journey and coming-of-age to an existential meditation on what life truly means beyond the humdrum of everyday distractions like work or relationships. Through Sound of Metal, they ask their audience to contemplate on whether Ruben’s outlook on life is correct, and whether life is meaningless without hearing, or without our routines. They explore the idea of finding peace and stillness and the ways you might achieve that. But it’s also about resilience and how our identities and life plans are malleable just like we are. Still, it isn’t for everyone. Sound of Metal is for the person who needs a change of pace, introspection, and the comfort of open-ended conclusions that leave the possibility for anything. Like anything else in life, you will need to entertain the story before it means something.

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