They call New York the city that never sleeps, but Peter Lucian thinks he has the solution for the Big Apple’s many insomniacs. In “The Sound of Silence,” Peter — who is not a scientist but a made-up specialist called a “house tuner” — believes that noises are to blame for the stress and anxiety that his customers feel. And so, like some kind of feng shui expert for sound, this sullen loner (played by Peter Sarsgaard, looking his most forlorn) visits the apartments of assorted stressballs in an attempt to diagnose why their acoustics are out of whack.
Maybe it’s an ultrasonic frequency coming from the refrigerator that’s interfering with someone’s sleep, or the way the floorboards squeak, or the toaster. (It’s almost always the toaster, and for those people, he has a specific noiseless model he likes to recommend.) Director Michael Tyburski, who co-wrote the script with Ben Nabors, is right to recognize how sound plays a role in people’s well-being, but it’s downright weird to conceive a character who’s focused on minor domestic disturbances in a city where the noise pollution — a cacophony of car horns and sirens and insult-shouting strangers — pours in through the windows and paper-thin walls to pummel New Yorkers’ eardrums at all hours.
And yet, both Tyburski and his socially awkward protagonist seem fully committed to Peter’s peculiar profession, sending cameras swirling around Sarsgaard as he strikes tuning forks in crowded corners of the city to identify the aural signature of each neighborhood. “The Sound of Silence” is a deeply silly movie that takes itself incredibly seriously, and believe it or not, that’s its great pleasure. Nearly two decades ago, Charlie Kaufman opened the door to a fresh realm of absurdist science fiction with “Being John Malkovich,” and few screenwriters have managed to replicate that endearingly dorky, hyper-cerebral style of comedy since.
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“The Sound of Silence” comes close, but resists embracing the humor of its premise. Instead, the movie assumes the low-contrast, dun-and-gray palette of Woody Allen’s less-funny New York films (movies like “Another Woman” and “Hannah and Her Sisters”). Costume designer Megan Stark-Evans outfits Sarsgaard in moth-colored tweeds and a coarse-looking beard, so he all but blends into the drab-looking buildings where the story unfolds. It’s the kind of lugubrious tale in which one fully expects to hear the melancholy stylings of composer Carter Burwell (the actual score, by Will Bates, is comparably morose), and it would surprise no one if the film ended with Peter slitting his wrists or sticking his head in a gas oven.
In other words, “The Sound of Silence” is a film for McSweeney’s readers and folks who listen to “Science Friday” on NPR: intellectual in a slightly out-there way, weird enough to warrant bringing up at a dinner party and all but guaranteed to remain semi-obscure — and therefore sure to maintain a degree of hipster cred for those who’ve seen it. And yet, the movie feels woefully undernourished for something that originated as a short (2013’s “Palimpsest”), as if the creators decided to make it longer but not necessarily any more eventful or intriguing. (They also neglected to flesh out the sounds of New York City, despite having earned the Dolby Family Fellowship and a rare chance among indies to mix the film in Atmos sound.)
As in the 17-minute version, the house tuner visits a skeptical single woman (here played by Rashida Jones) who could prove to be a love interest, although Peter is so withdrawn and antisocial, there’s no chance for anything resembling chemistry to form. Ellen, as she is called, bemusedly observes as this complete stranger explores her private cocoon, inspecting her appliances and even going so far as to stretch out on her bed. “It helps me if I re-create your morning routine,” he says, and we chuckle at the spacey pseudo-science of it as Peter pokes around with his lo-fi equipment — not much different from the gear ghost hunters use to detect paranormal infestations. Dressed like a fussy 1950s college professor, Peter looks so old-school that he makes the reel-to-reel obsessive Gene Hackman played in “The Conversation” seem positively cutting-edge by comparison.
Peter thinks he knows the source of Ellen’s trouble and sends her a new toaster, but her ennui persists, chipping away at his confidence in his own theories (meanwhile, audiences might conclude that Ellen, recently separated, hasn’t learned to sleep without the sound of her ex’s snoring). This is where the feature diverges from the short that came before, providing a glimpse into Peter’s predictably dull private life: When not making house calls, he retreats to a bunker-like basement where he’s insulated from the clamor of the city. There, he enjoys solitude and near silence but is easily perturbed by the polite suggestions of his new assistant, a grad student named Samuel (Tony Revolori), who volunteers to help shape Peter’s “research” into something academic journals might consider publishing.
For such a modestly executed film, “The Sound of Silence” reverberates with big ideas: There’s the excitement of witnessing an outsider-pioneer explore a new field, trying to parse the data he’s collected to reveal some kind of overlooked “universal law.” Then there’s the drama of watching him try to convince the scientific establishment of its validity while wrestling with the forces who’d like to exploit his discoveries for profit. And finally, there’s the suggestion that Peter could in fact be crazy, and that his master theory may simply be a way of sheltering himself from normal interactions with other people.
When it comes to this last point, it hardly matters whether Peter is brilliant or deranged. Either way, he’s obviously using his work as a buffer from genuine human connection. Not until Peter manages to engineer a space free from all noise will he realize the flaw in his logic — that even in a vacuum, he can never escape his own breathing, or the pumping in his chest — and finally learn to listen to his heart.