The opening credits appear on a dark screen escorted by aggressive sounds of adjusting mikes and amplifiers. The camera then reveals Ruben Stone, a half naked heavy metal drummer in medium close-up, seated on stage in a dark gig hall; illuminated by concert lights flickering chaotically. It reluctantly zooms into the perspiring hero bathed in lights and lurks around as he prepares himself to take the plunge with his drums into an adrenaline-heavy, hard-metal concert. The grating sound earlier makes way for belligerent guitar riffs and the violent growls of his girlfriend Lou as she breaks into a song. Ruben’s energetic drums follow her on cue. His hands effortlessly manoeuvre between cymbals and snare drums throwing the crowd into delirium. The high-decibel atmosphere excites the crowd and pumps up the performers as the concert proceeds violently.
The last scene of the movie plays out by a nondescript sidewalk bench in Paris on a pleasant day. After lurking behind Ruben who is seated on a bench, the camera reveals his bearded face in close-up. He sharpens his surgically resurrected ears to listen to the world around him. Despite the implants, the chiming church bells and wailing sirens sound as if they were emanating from an almost broken radio searching for the right frequency. Unable to strain his ears anymore, he removes them plunging his world into an unending silence. He looks up at the sky but his face betrays nothing. The fixated camera doesn’t move away from Ruben Stone’s face in close-up. The initial impassivity which ran across his face turns into tacit acceptance as Ruben comes to terms with his new world, without sound, around him. The scene turns dark again as the end credits roll.
The journey of Ruben Stone, the drummer, from one extreme to the other forms the crux of the movie Sound of Metal. The movie itself is a study in contrast. The deafening rock concert of the couple in a dark hall at the outset is juxtaposed with a quiet morning filled with soothing music inside their lively touring van. A touring couple’s gypsy life comes to a grinding halt when they are forced to live an immobile and sedentary life separated by continents. Nurtured by a single mother who was a nurse in the military, an atheist Ruben, who was on the move all through his life, runs into a god fearing community. Even though a free spirit, he halfheartedly plays by the rules of Joe who leads the community. A life away from concerts but closer to the nature takes over as Ruben Stone (played by Riz Ahmed) reluctantly surrenders his last signs of connectivity, his van’s keys and the mobile phone, to Joe.
Ruben and Joe are at two extreme ends as far as their world views are concerned. For Ruben, his stopover at the community is a just a phase. He believes that his hearing can be regained and he will eventually get back to his world. Ruben is individualistic and wants to do something with his life instead of diddling around in a community. But Joe (portrayed by Paul Raci) doesn’t count deafness as a handicap. He embraces it instead and makes his community capable of leading an independent life despite deafness. Joe wants Ruben to sit down in a room with coffee and write so that a fidgety Ruben can discover moments of stillness.
Ruben, unfortunately, is too proactive and itching so much to get back into action that such moments either fly past his head or under his chair. Ruben almost learns to communicate through sign language but often succumbs to the temptation of connecting with the world outside which is against the rules of the community. Joe’s decision at the end about whether to let him stay or go is based purely on a collectivistic mindset. He eventually does what is best for the community to keep the kingdom of god intact. In the meantime Ruben ventures outside to get a hold of his life, which is going through forced transformations.
Ruben Stone’s precious little van, which represents his free spirits, transforms as well. The interior of the van is very inviting especially when the couple is shown driving somewhere and talking about random stuff at the beginning. As we dive deep into the movie, their cozy nest turns gloomy. When Ruben breaks his drums, the van’s interiors appear cramped. The van and the free spirit it represents disappear when the community takes over. It eventually makes a comeback only to be stripped off, sold and taken away from Ruben.
This is the case with Lulu, his girlfriend (played by Olivia Cooke), as well. Unable to see Ruben descend into chaos, she reluctantly leaves him to make him join the community. By the time he reunites with Lulu, it dawns upon Ruben that times have changed. A growling Lulu at the outset is seen rendering a melody in French. Despite being broke, Ruben’s relentless efforts to get back to the drummer’s seat in order to restart the gypsy life and resume concert tours were out of passion and love for Lulu. But it soon dawns upon Ruben that those gypsy days won’t come back again. Before the end credits roll, his inner journey is complete and has transformed him into a different Ruben.
The music is composed by Nicolas Becker and Abraham Marder. The sound has its own existence in this movie. The background score is almost nonexistent but the diegetic sounds from within it is amazing. The jarring mike adjustments before the concert at the beginning and the routine everyday sounds from their lives that follow felt refreshing. The sound from Ruben’s ears when he realizes that something is wrong with his hearing sense, in front of the mirror, evoked despondency. Listening to his fluctuating hearing capacity will make you feel as if he is talking from underwater.
When he takes the hearing test with a doctor, the reality of the situation hits you hard. Almost all the words guessed by him are way off the mark. ‘Ditch’ becomes ‘fish’ and ‘ring’ is heard as ‘broom’. Chirping crickets, swishing winds, rustling leaves and other similar sounds of nature serve a purpose. These sounds from nature, when he reluctantly spends his time with the community, accentuate his loneliness further. The clanking plates, creaking chairs, sounds made by the hands while communicating through sign language, hands hitting the crockery when the members dine, etc., leave an impact. Ruben’s utter disbelief upon regaining his hearing sense reveals the chasm between the reality and his misplaced hopes. It is hard to miss any sound in this movie. The moment of stillness that hits Ruben Stone through silence at the end of the movie is powerful and heartbreaking.
As life throws a sucker punch at the tragic drummer without negotiating, we too fall to the ground along with him in despair. With a strong sound design underpinning the movie, the silences and stillnesses created by Sound of Metal will linger with you for long.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.