When the sound dampens, all of the oxygen bleeds from the room. Percussion is the heart of every Metal sound. The drummer must set the tempo and give each song a structural backbone, a consistent and lively purpose onto which music can be played over. When Sound of Metal begins, it’s all frenetic and hard driving drumming. Ruben (Riz Ahmed) frantically jams on the drums, never so wildly alive as in the moment. It’s like he’s struck by lightning, as though The Gods of Metal have decided he’s made sufficient enough contributions, that he’s stricken enough notes, and the sound saps out of his head. The world goes quiet; Ruben has gone deaf.
The unconventional thing about Sound of Metal is that this is the extent of the musical showcase. A couple minutes of slamming on the drums and then deafening silence. It punctuates the message of what Sound of Metal is, and is not, about. It is not a movie a movie about music. There’s a distinct absence of score and the sound is basically distorted throughout. It almost is not even about hearing loss, although that is what happens and is dealt with, in the story.
The major factor at play is that Ruben is in long-term recovery from addiction. When his hearing goes, he caves and goes right back to cigarettes. His bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke) is devastated, watching their two-part band split immediately. When they first sit down and really talk about it, the first thing to do is call Ruben’s recovery sponsor, who carefully coaches about finding a deaf meeting, someone to talk with.
Ruben goes and interviews at a deaf house, where they focus not on repairing their conditions, but about getting their mind right, and dealing with life on life’s terms. It’s too much for Ruben, who has seemingly long used his music as another crutch, brutalizing his drums the same as having another cigarette; an escape from tensions and the pressures of dealing with problems, by lashing out physically at uninvolved objects. The new situation fills him with a rash of immediate anger. He must process through all the stages of grief. But it’s too much for Lou, who is experiencing the old Ruben, and is herself trying to stop with self-harm, and so she flies back to France to live with her family.
That’s when Ruben is given a jolt — an imperative that he must grasp onto his recovery with all his life and live with his new reality. Riz Ahmed is an exceptional talent and has given himself fully to the act. He has learned American Sign Language and has internalized the non-verbal cues common in deaf communities. Wonderfully, in his new boarding situation, he’s surrounded by members of the deaf community. A standout supporting actor, Paul Raci (who plays Ruben’s tutor Joe), was raised with deaf parents and currently performs with a Black Sabbath ASL cover band. His performance is as badass as his side gig, showing true devotion and love.
Good recovery cinema requires meaningful reflection on what it means to be a person in recovery. That is what Sound of Metal is about. When Ruben goes outside of his community and tries to get surgery for his hearing, he is acting out his addiction. Every problem must be fixed. The purpose of the deaf community, where he’s been staying, is to sit and learn to be still within your own thoughts. That there is a meditative beauty in the silence, that most people never get to experience. It is about harnessing resiliency and being true to oneself.
Like Ruben, I’m in my fourth year of continuous long term recovery. I understand exactly what it means to act out my addiction. It’s a daily battle, that can only be won through continuous hard work and involvement within communities. What I love dearly about Sound of Metal is that it understands, better than any recovery movie, what the process is really about. It understands how we get well again. It’s by helping other people. By honoring our past, but not living in it, and spreading a message of hope and optimism to everyone we encounter. Otherwise, we’re just banging on the same old drums, playing the same tune. What Sound of Metal gets perfectly right, is that recovery is about the silences, about finally finding enough grace to have the stillness and soundness of mind to think clearly.
I write with immense gratitude, as Sound of Metal is everything I’m looking for. The central performances are award-worthy knockouts, the audiovisual layer is distinctly innovative, and the film offers a concrete message of hope. Anyone still suffering from addiction could see this film, and think, there is the way forward. Here is a film that tells the whole story of recovery within a few acts. The ultimate utility will be decided by an audience, but for this critic, Riz Ahmed has already won. His performance is a reflective mirror and is exactly why this critic watches film. Sound of Metal is the best kind of movie. It’s constructed out of compassion and understanding and has every potential to help others, just as much as it has helped me.