If you listen closely enough, even silence sounds like something. 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, what have you — by mapping out the soundscapes of their homes and reharmonizing them with micro-changes to their sonic ecosystems. As out-there as that may sound, the hero of Michael Tyburski’s debut feature isn’t a charlatan — much like “The Sound of Silence” itself, he’s a unique figure who deserves to be listened to as closely as possible.
We’ve entered an era of sensory deprivation at the movies, with “A Quiet Place” and “Bird Box” presenting it as something terrifying: make a noise or open your eyes, these films warn, and they will get you. Tyburski takes a more cerebral approach, offering up a man who’s so attuned to the constant background hum of daily life that he knows how to focus on the signal and ignore the noise. Watching Peter work — putting on headphones, tinkering with tuning forks, recording everything he does — is more compelling than it has any right to be.
All of his clients are skeptical of his methods, but all of them 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 imperceptible sound it emits interferes with her living space’s natural room tone and is the apparent source of her ongoing sleep issues.
“The Sound of Silence” wouldn’t have much drama if this consultation proved as effective as those that came before it, of course, and Tyburski charts the ensuing anxiety with a subtlety befitting his protagonist. This film is quiet in more ways than one, drawing viewers in but compelling them to hang on every word. That’s largely due to Sarsgaard, whose performance is akin to his turn as Stanley Milgram in Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter.” He fully inhabits his oddball character, making him not only believable but convincing in the way he carries out his strange duties.
Peter is like a wellness guru you’d see on Instagram, only his #brand is too subtle and soft-spoken to be an influencer and his technique is too sophisticated to fit into 280 characters. Recently written about in the New Yorker, he now has the chance to monetize his gifts in new ways — but resists. “This is about universal constants,” he says, “not commerce.” Peter’s priorities are understanding the sonic elements of everyday life and helping his clients (in that order), with allowing corporations to co-opt his findings ranking somewhere near volunteering for a root canal.
A classical music devotee, he’s impressed by Stravinsky’s dissonance and Beethoven’s use of suspense — as well as the fact that all of these masters were manipulating neurological responses that science had yet to define. His expertise is as niche as they come, but Sarsgaard is so quietly expressive that you can’t help wanting to hear more. He’s the eccentric professor you remember years after completing your degree, not just because he’s brilliant but because his connection to his material makes it difficult for him to connect to others.
That said, Tyburski never goes “A Beautiful Mind” on us. 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 change expressed, fittingly enough, via a high-pitched hum in the latter half of the film. Tyburski and co-writer/producer Ben Nabors brought a shorter version of the story called “Palimpsest” to Sundance six years ago, and managed to avoid most of the pitfalls associated with shorts extended into features: “The Sound of Silence” never feels like 20 minutes of narrative stretched across an 85-minute runtime, even if it proves more effective as a character study than it does as a drama.
Even the best records start skipping after a while, and once “The Sound of Silence” gives in to the demands of conventional narrative it begins feeling less fresh and new than it did when it was simply introducing us to Peter and his work. It’s an auspicious debut for Tyburski nevertheless, and may leave you wishing you could hire a house tuner of your own.
“The Sound of Silence” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.