Noise is an addiction in the spectacular ‘The Sound of Metal’

Riz Ahmed as Ruben in SOUND OF METAL
Riz Ahmed as Ruben in SOUND OF METAL
(Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Ruben’s world is a world of noise.

In the opening scene of “The Sound of Metal,” Ruben (Riz Ahmed) sits behind a drum set, waiting. Offscreen, his bandmate/partner Lou (Olivia Cooke) dials her guitar’s feedback up to Sonic Youth levels. Ruben rocks back and forth with anticipation, his eyes wide with adrenaline. Finally, Lou punches out a distorted chord, and the crowd goes wild. This is Ruben’s cue.

He punishes the tom drums with primordial aggression as Lou screams indecipherable lyrics into the mic. Their band, Blackgammon, does not make music so much as it produces chaos. By the end of the song, it’s unclear whether Ruben has created something he loves or fears.

It’s a stunner of an opening sequence, and one of the best portrayals of extreme noise ever put on film. And it’s not just a performance for artists like Lou and Ruben — this type of music holds no commercial appeal or opportunity for financial gain. This noise is their lifeblood. They do it night after night, travelling through the Midwestern cities in their Airstream camper trailer.

Of course, the human body is not equipped to handle this nightly aural assault, and once Ruben begins to experience hearing loss, his world falls apart.

In that sense, “The Sound of Metal” might as well be a film about the apocalypse (a genre we’ve all probably become more familiar with over the past eight months). Like all end-of-the-world tales, the film asks: what’s there to live for if all meaning is taken away?

For Ruben, a recovering heroin addict, creating extreme music is his tether to sobriety, even though it’s progressed into another addiction unto itself, for there’s no other word to convey the physical damage that drumming has rendered on Ruben’s body. Even his relationship with Lou is defined by co-dependence. They’re two broken people who’ve only found a tenuous existence through music. It’s only when Lou threatens self-harm that Ruben agrees to enter a recovery program for deaf addicts.

Filmed with gritty realism, screenwriter Darius Marder’s bold, spectacular directorial debut often feels like an indie thriller instead of a drama. Ahmed — perhaps best known as Jake Gyllenhaal’s bug-eyed business partner in “Nightcrawler” — plays Ruben with the intensity of a cornered animal, and the scenes depicting his hearing loss are as disorienting and claustrophobic for the audience as they are to Ruben. His continued denial of his condition is painful to watch, especially during one harrowing Blackgammon show when Ruben loses track of the song he cannot hear, and overcompensates by playing even harder. If music is his addiction, this is his overdose.

Believing that his hearing loss is temporary, Ruben enters the recovery program mostly to appease Lou, but he quickly warms to the group’s kind but no-nonsense leader, Joe (played by real life ASL advocate and metal singer, Paul Raci). Joe insists that it’s not Ruben’s hearing that needs fixed, but his mindset.

Ruben slowly settles into the program. He learns sign language, and volunteers at a school, teaching drums to deaf children. One of the film’s many highlights is a wordless dinner scene where members of Joe’s program (all of whom are played by deaf actors) sign wildly to each other and slap the table, giving the film a warm percussive harmony, which works in exact opposition to the abrasive noise of Ruben’s former life. Without a doubt, the audio design in “The Sound of Metal” is more innovative than any movie in recent history, and it successfully links sound to narrative in profound and emotionally-wrenching ways.

Like any addict’s road to acceptance, Ruben’s path is difficult and fraught with obstacles. He develops a habit of sneaking into Joe’s office to check email, keep up with Lou and catch glimpses of his former life—activities that are strictly prohibited in Joe’s program.

These continual missteps are what prevent the film from falling into schmaltz. Joe is right: there’s no solution to Ruben’s disability, and for a film to provide one would only be insulting to the deaf community. The film doesn’t pander either—there’s no “what’s lost is now gained” lesson to be learned. Ruben has changed, but for the better or worse depends entirely up to him.

“The Sound of Metal” premiered last year at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, but in many ways it feels like a film for 2020. Given the popularity of hate-watching and doomscrolling through social media, it’s easy to compare Ruben’s addiction to noise with our own. And watching Ruben yearn for normalcy—whatever that looks like—is as painful as witnessing friends and family demand the same, despite a worldwide pandemic that has pulled out the threads on what it means to be normal.

Like Ruben, we have very little control over the noise that surrounds us, but we can learn to recognize the rare moments of stillness, and take refuge in the quiet.