Scared, stressed, sad—these are all emotions that Ruben feels when he starts going deaf. And we’re not talking about a gradual decline in hearing; we’re talking 70 to 80% of his hearing gone within just a couple of days.
The doctor tells him to eliminate all exposure to loud noises. But that’s not really an option for Ruben since he and his girlfriend, Lou, are part of a heavy metal band. And the surgery to get cochlear implants, which would restore some of his hearing, costs at least $40,000. Maybe twice that. Again, not exactly an option for a guy living out of a trailer.
To make matters even worse, all this stress piling on tempts Ruben back into smoking—something that worries Lou since Ruben is a recovering heroin addict and hasn’t smoked a cigarette in four years.
She convinces Ruben to join a rehab program that caters specifically to deaf people. Of course, that means Ruben will be completely cut off from Lou who’s been his primary support system for the past four years.
Ruben is convinced that the best way to get his life back on track is to somehow get the surgery and return to Lou. But Joe, who runs the program, is more concerned with teaching Ruben how to accept to his new life by learning how to be deaf.
We witness an entire deaf community—men, women and children—working together to lead normal, productive lives. Joe explains that this is because they don’t treat deafness as a handicap or something to be fixed. And as Ruben gradually allows himself to engage with these people, he realizes that he actually can be happy without his hearing.
[Spoiler Warning] When Ruben and Lou are finally reunited, they realize that as happy as they thought they were together, they actually aren’t good for each other at all. Ruben substituted Lou for drugs; and being with Ruben gives Lou anxiety. They still love each other and thank each other for the wonderful years they had together, but they ultimately decide to separate. And as sad as it is, this is the far healthier option for both of them.
Ruben engages in healthy habits, such as clean eating and daily exercise, in order to keep his addictive habits at bay. Lou’s dad thanks Ruben for giving her a safe place to stay after her mom died.
Joe is a Christian, and his ministry focuses on rehabilitating deaf addicts. He tries to impress the importance of being still to Ruben, hoping that it will help him to focus on his mental and spiritual state rather than his physical one. Joe says that the kingdom of God can be found in stillness, and that God will never abandon those who find it.
Despite emphasizing that he isn’t religious at all, Ruben has a tattoo of a cross on his chest. Someone wears a cross necklace. We see a cross on a wall. Joe says that the church sponsors people in need, regardless of their beliefs.
A man and woman make out and cuddle in bed. They kiss several other times throughout the film, and it is implied that they are in a sexual relationship. We see Ruben shirtless several times. Some women wear revealing tops.
Ruben creates a tattoo design of a nude woman, and we later see the image on a gay woman’s shoulder. Two people discuss song lyrics with a sexual undertone.
We hear that Lou’s mom died by suicide. Lou herself has multiple scars on her wrist indicative of self-harm, and we later see her scratching herself. Ruben says he wants to shoot himself and has a tattoo that says, “Please kill me.” He has several violent temper tantrums throughout the film in which he screams and destroys the things around him. Lou also tells Ruben that if he hurts himself, she’ll hurt herself.
We learn that a man lost his hearing from a bomb explosion. A man removes his bandages after surgery, and we see some blood.
We hear about 60 uses of the f-word (five preceded by “mother”) and 12 uses of the s-word. We also hear one use each of “a–” and “d–n,” and we see the word “b–ch” written on a computer screen. God’s name is misused twice, and Christ’s name is misused once.
Ruben is a former heroin addict but has been clean for four years. He and other addicts attend a rehab program, though several of them (including Ruben) continue to smoke cigarettes throughout the film. Joe admits he lost everything—including his family—to alcoholism.
Ruben breaks Joe’s trust and the rules of the rehab program. He sneaks into Joe’s private apartment multiple times in order to use the internet (when the program requires him to be completely cut off from the outside world). He also pressures another member of the program to help him sell his drum kit, sound equipment and trailer in order to raise money for his implant surgery.
After Ruben gets the surgery—which he purposely neglected to tell Joe about—Ruben defends himself, saying that he needed to save his own life since nobody else was going to do it for him. Joe tells him that he looks and sounds like an addict, realizing that Ruben is obsessing over the idea of getting his hearing back the way an addict would obsess over drugs.
Ruben is kicked out of the program for breaking Joe’s trust, but he still returns to the audiologist to activate his cochlear implants. However, he realizes too late that having implants is not the same as having functional ears. The sound the implants provide is distorted and fuzzy. And ultimately, he realizes that Joe was right all along about deafness not being something that needs to be “fixed.”
We learn that Ruben never knew his dad. A woman says she used to imagine her funeral as a child, which would make her cry. A man says he either wants to be cremated for fed to birds when he dies.
When I hear heavy metal music, I often have a hard time understanding what’s going on. Perhaps someone with a more practiced ear could discern what the lyrics are saying, but I’m often left confused and angry because of the music’s gruff sound.
But Sound of Metal didn’t leave me feeling this way. Yes, we witness Ruben’s temper tantrums over his hearing loss. We see him go through withdrawals after Lou leaves him. And we watch as he goes to extreme measures to get her back.
However, we also witness an entire community coming together to help one another through their struggles. They teach Ruben what it’s like to be deaf. They teach him sign language and give him a job and a purpose within the community.
Now, the film does come with some caveats—such as frequent harsh language, people recovering from addictions and some brief moments of intimacy—and it doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. But I actually think that in that approach, the story pays tribute to the genre of music depicted in the film.
Much like heavy metal music, Sound of Metal isn’t trying to give us warm, pleasant feelings. It tells the story of a man who learns how to overcome his addictions and live with a huge lifestyle change. But Ruben still makes mistakes, at times kicking against the discipline and structure he desperately needs. Ruben’s story shows us that not everyone is going to follow the rules and find joy in their circumstances, even when they’re trying to make positive changes. While there are some sad setbacks here, Ruben gradually realizes that even though he’s gotten everything he ever wanted, he finally realizes what he actually needed.
Sound of Metal is a gruff story. It’s definitely not for everyone. But for those who choose to watch, it conveys a redemptive message through the hard lessons that Ruben learns.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.