×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Sound of Silence’

Director:
Michael Tyburski
With:
Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones

1 hour 27 minutes

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.

“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.

Film Review: 'The Sound of Silence'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2019. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: An Anonymous Content, Washington Square Films presentation of a {Group Theory} production, in association with Keshet Studios, Westbourne Pictures, Feracious Entertainment, Jhumka Films, Valparaiso Pictures, Max the Cat, SSS Entertainment, White Owl Ventures, Three Mile Ventures. (Int’l sales: Film Constellation, London.) Producers: Tariq Merhab, Ben Nabors, Michael Prall, Charlie Scully, Mandy Tagger Brockey, Adi Erzoni. Executive producers: Avi Nir, Peter Traugott, Aris Boletsis, Joshua Blum, Rebecca Feinberg, Michael Turnure-Salleo, Jonathan Duffy, Paula Smith Arrigoni, Alicia Brown, Pradnya Dugal, Tej Dugal, David Carrico, Heidrun Mumper-Drumm, Shaun Shanghani, Landy Liu, Adam Kirszner, Daryl Freimark. Co-producers: Kristie Lutz, Eddy Vallante.

Crew: Director: Michael Tyburski. Screenplay: Tyburski, Ben Nabors. Camera (color): Eric Lin. Editor: Matthew C. Hart. Music: Will Bates.

With: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman, Tracee Chimo, Alex Karpovsky, Tina Benko, Kate Lyn Sheil.

More Film

  • John Hodges

    Jax Media Taps A24 Co-Founder John Hodges as Head of New Film Division

    TV production powerhouse Jax Media is expanding into film and tapped John Hodges, one of the founding partners of A24, as its new head of film. “I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Jax,” Hodges said. “Theirs is a potent brand that I’ve admired for a long time, and their reputation as innovative partners [...]

  • Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost,

    Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost, Sets 'Court Lady' With Huanyu

    Hong Kong’s Television Broadcasts is set to boost its OTT platforms locally and abroad with new packages and initiatives targeting the Southeast Asian market. The city’s biggest broadcaster has also renewed its partnership with China’s Huanyu Entertainment following the wild success the two enjoyed last year with court rivalry drama “Story of Yanxi Palace.” The [...]

  • Blue Planet II

    Documentaries Show Strong Signs of Growth in Global Markets

    Nearly 40% of exhibitors at FilMart this year are currently involved in documentary films. This year, there are 290 such exhibitors from 26 countries and regions, an increase of 30% from the year before, and 24 nonfiction titles in screening sessions, nearly double last year’s 13 titles. The market launched its “Doc World” section in [...]

  • Palanquin Offers New Business Model for

    Palanquin Offers New Business Model for East-West Productions in SVoD Era

    For Westerners making movies in Asia, logistics can be problematic. And, for Asian filmmakers able to navigate local conditions, screenwriting for international audiences and access to markets can still be stumbling blocks. Veteran producer and executive Guy Louthan (“The Mist,” “Raising Arizona”) is now developing a business that straddles East and West, deploys American production [...]

  • 'The Fall,' 'Out of Crimes' and

    Oriental Intl. Debuts at FilMart With Six New Films and Classic Fare

    Oriental Intl. makes its FilMart sales debut with a line-up of six new titles and a library of 20 arthouse classics and shorts. The firm is the Hong Kong branch of Chinese state-run radio and TV broadcaster CRI-CIBN’s smart TV division. The company has five employees but only one employee based permanently in Hong Kong. [...]

  • Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong

    Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong Kong Asian Project Market

    Historically, ethnic minorities around the world have suffered, and 2019 sees no change in this regard. A brace of HAF projects highlight some of the problems faced by them. From Iran, Arsalan Amiri’s horror/black comedy “Zalava” is set in a village terrified by demonic possession, where a young, agnostic police officer arrests challenges local beliefs [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content