If you listen close enough, even silence sounds like something. It’s just that most of us can’t hear it, but most of us aren’t house tuners. Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard) is, though, and he uses his particular set of skills to rid people of their ailments — depression, fatigue, etc. — by mapping out the soundscapes of their homes and reharmonizing them with micro-changes to their sonic ecosystems. As out-there as that might sound, the central figure of Michael Tyburski’s directorial debut isn’t a quack — much like The Sound of Silence itself, he’s a unique figure who deserves to be listened to as closely as possible.
Expanding upon his short film Palimpsest, Tyburski and co-writer Ben Nabors have created a memorably single-minded protagonist in Peter, and Sarsgaard finds an almost sensual serenity in the everyday gravity of his assuredness, even as the film carefully weaves both a pensive quality and a deadpan wit, largely studying the debilitating obsessiveness of an urban loner confronted with human complexity. At times Peter is an easily romantic figure; when his guard is down slightly and the joy enters his understated delivery as he talks about knowing there’s a master harmony determining our behavior, you want to believe him. (And the film’s aural qualities, Will Bates’ solid score and the nicely layered sound design by Grant Elder and Ian Gaffney-Rosenfeld beautifully manifest the world as Peter experiences it, both truthfully and psychologically.)
Peter, a self-described “house tuner,” a sound expert for hire who answers the call of unsettled New Yorkers open to finding a remedy in Peter’s method. He assesses a living space’s mix of ambient — whether from electrical appliances, construction quirks, or outside atmosphere factors — to determine what external solution will produce the sound that subliminally alters a person’s entire mood. (In the opening scene, he tells a customer his anxiety can be traced to a discordant note from the radiator.) Living as a specialized eccentric in a converted fallout shelter that he’s turned into a noise-canceling, analog man-cave of recording-playing devices, Peter survives on his word-of-mouth tuner gigs but sees true deliverance in what’s occupied him for years: mapping out New York’s sonic makeup that, to his mind, amounts to an undiscovered universal law detailing how sound influences all human emotion.
Though all of his clients are skeptical of his methods, they all of end up being satisfied — until he meets Ellen (Rashida Jones), whose chronic exhaustion is seeping into every aspect of her life. After closely examining her apartment, laying in her bed, and determining which note her appliances strike, Peter offers a simple solution: buy a new toaster. The nearly unnoticeable sound it emits interferes with her living space’s natural room tone and is the apparent source of her ongoing issues. Chilly yet compassionate, anchored by Sarsgaard and a poignant turn by Jones, their relationship becomes a delicate oddity displaying the type of chemistry that doesn’t arise from an obvious spark but from a kind of unspoken vulnerability and presence of mind. Whether politely talking, politely arguing, or appreciating a silence together — as in the poetic final moments during a citywide blackout (artfully rendered by cinematographer Eric Lin, who does elegantly textured work throughout) — they truly are the top tones in any room, looking for a harmonic convergence when the world makes connecting harder than ever.
The Sound of Silence does bring its dramatic side, seen in that relationship and some other academic and business ventures from Peter and Tyburski charts the ensueing anxiety pretty well. The film, as you might expect, is quiet in more ways than one, drawing viewers in but compelling them to hang on every word. Which is largely due to Sarsgaard, who very convincingly brings his character’s niche expertise to life. He’s the eccentric teacher or professor that you remember years after graduating, not just because he’s brilliant but because his connection to his material makes it difficult for him to connect to others.
Peter’s life is appropriately harmonious for a good long while, and it isn’t until he struggles to solve Ellen’s ongoing problems that his own life grows dissonant — a gradual changed expressed via a high-pitched hum in the back half of the film. Even the best records start skipping after a while, and The Sound of Silence does have its moment or two (at a point or two it slips into the demands of conventional narrative and it might have served the movie better if Peter and Ellen’s sorrows were give some background). Yet it’s still a strong and promising debut for Tyburski, as he gently unfolds a dissection of one man’s painstaking search for sonic harmony. And while most of the movie marinates in the quiet, it’s transfixing atmosphere and cerebral power blasts at full volume.