“The Sound of Metal”: A Beautiful Tale of Finding Oneself


Ruben in “The Sound of Metal.” Screengrab from official trailer.

If you grew up listening to music, chances are you heard the same spiel from your parents; “you’ll go deaf if you keep listening at that volume!” You’d pay it no mind and continue listening, but what if that statement were true? The Sound of Metal explores that possibility.

The film follows musical duo Ruben and Lou, who produce avant-garde metal music in a small band called Blackgammon. The band seems to be at the top of their hill in the beginning, with Ruben explaining how they’re about to begin a massive tour across the United States.

However, these plans are interrupted when Ruben’s hearing begins deteriorating rapidly just before the tour begins. The Sound of Metal follows him joining a deaf community, which seems to follow one simple rule: deafness is not a disability. The community is composed of people who are all deaf, including those deaf from birth and those who became deaf later in life. Ruben goes through the process of saving up for a surgery that will hopefully repair his hearing. The filmmakers employ several creative techniques to show how the sound design is built around Ruben’s lack of hearing.

There’s very little sound throughout the runtime, and most of the dialogue occurs through signing. For the majority of the first half of the film, everything the audience hears is muffled, such as sounds like walking or silverware clattering on plates. This silence helps the audience know Ruben’s position in becoming deaf but still being unfamiliar with ASL. The subtitles also reflect this isolation. Immediately after Ruben becomes deaf and joins the community, there are no subtitles when the others are signing. Ruben doesn’t know ASL at that point and shouldn’t understand what is being said.

However, the film’s use of sound changes as Ruben learns more about his condition.  After some time with the community, the audience gets to hear the natural sound of birds and walking. The subtitles also come back when Ruben begins communicating with the others in the community via ASL.

The community is led by Joe, a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. Joe doesn’t seem to feel any anger or shame in his deafness, instead using it as a way to connect with others, even showing how open he is by admitting it was his PTSD and alcoholism which caused his family to leave.

Joe and his community believe that deafness isn’t a disability but an entirely new way of viewing the world. Joe doesn’t make Ruben feel like a burden for his lack of awareness, but instead introduces him to a school where he can learn ASL.

This blossoms into Ruben helping the students learn how to drum and making friends with two lonely children. Seeing Ruben’s restlessness, Joe also gives him a simple task to help him become acquainted with his lack of hearing. Joe simply has Ruben sit in a room and write until he feels content with the silence. This shows eventual success, as Ruben becomes more accepting of his deafness than before. It is at this point that the sound is fully restored.

Ruben doesn’t feel like he’s totally lost in this journey life has set him on. His friends show their kindness and helpful intentions in a positive way, welcoming Ruben into a new family by the end.

The Sound of Metal shows deafness through a lens that is often forgotten in media, one of realism. The film doesn’t portray his deafness as a bad thing throughout, but rather shows him gradually accepting it, with highs and lows. This did come at some cost however, as a major criticism by those in the deaf or hard of hearing community is that Ruben is played by Riz Ahmed, an actor who can hear.

Ahmed gives a dedicated performance as Ruben, delivering a realistic portrayal of someone who went deaf later on in life. For example, Ruben still speaks like he did before he went deaf, just a bit louder.

Having grown up with deaf parents, Paul Raci proves to be perfectly cast as Joe. Emanating warmth and acceptance, Raci gently leads both Ruben and the audience towards closure.

The film does have deaf actors, such as Lauren Ridoff as a teacher at the academy where Ruben learns ASL, as well as Chelsea Lee and Shaheem Sanchez as members of the community. However, those who are actually deaf or hard of hearing seem to be in rather minor roles, leading to criticism from those in the community. 

The Sound of Metal should always come with a high recommendation. The sets, score, and acting all demonstrate how the world changes for those who can’t hear. Hopefully this film helps those in the audience who are deaf feel seen and understood.