Review: ‘The Sound of Silence’ finds darkness in the aural world

Peter Sarsgaard, 'The Sound of Silence'
Peter Sarsgaard in the movie “The Sound of Silence.”
( IFC Films)

If an entire narrative film about a “house tuner” and the influence of sound over people’s lives seems like an esoteric yawnfest, think again: “The Sound of Silence,” anchored by a superbly modulated performance by the always intriguing Peter Sarsgaard, is fascinating, original and, yes, deeply resonant.

That’s not to say the movie is for everyone — far from it. Its gently unfolding dissection of one man’s painstaking search for sonic harmony is often somber and slow-going. But patient audiences should find cerebral, as well as audio-visual rewards in this atmospheric and delicately crafted character study that at times evokes Francis Ford Coppola’s intimate, 1974 masterwork “The Conversation.”

Directed by Michael Tyburski, who adapted the script with Ben Nabors (based on their 2013 short “Palimpsest”), the movie follows Peter Lucian, a tweedy scientist and music theorist who, among other things, has developed a process to catalog and diagnose urban sound patterns. His specialty: helping apartment dwellers in cacophonous Manhattan locate the often imperceptible noises percolating within their four walls that are, perhaps unknowingly, causing them emotional distress.


Armed with tuning forks, recorders, several mechanical contraptions and a kind of preternatural sense of detection, the hyper-focused, soft-spoken Peter zeroes in on the audible troublemakers. Off-key toaster hums are a biggie, but neighborhoods and even street corners themselves may be contributing factors. (According to Peter, Central Park reverberates “predominantly” in the key of G major while the Financial District is a D minor. Who knew?)

Although Peter’s services are in demand, his clients are initially skeptical, as if employing a psychic or an herbal healer. However, doubt fades once these bad sleepers, depressives and anxiety-plagued folks find that Peter’s prescriptive techniques have amazingly eased their issues.

But when Peter is contacted by Ellen (an affecting Rashida Jones), an Ohio transplant working for a nonprofit group, as a last-ditch effort to manage her exhaustion and gloom, he finds himself in shakier territory both professionally and emotionally.

It’s not that Ellen, still feeling the effects of a romantic breakup, is such a cynic; she’s actually pretty open and equitable, just sad. But Peter’s exacting advice — it’s another incompatible toaster — doesn’t much help Ellen, who becomes more intrigued by the sphinx-like Peter as a person than as a sound expert.

But since the workaholic Peter isn’t the easiest guy to get close to (we have no sense of his past relationships or nonplatonic desires) and is rattled by his inability to solve Ellen’s problem, their dynamic is fraught, yet always interesting to watch unfold.

Around this same time, Peter is introduced by an old professor friend (Austin Pendleton) to deferential graduate student Samuel (Tony Revolori of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), who ends up assisting Peter to inventory his wealth of data.

This seemingly earnest arrangement ultimately moves the film into effectively darker, slightly thriller-like territory which, when coupled with the disquieting Ellen situation, sends Peter into a kind of crisis of faith.

First-time feature helmer Tyburski, supported by Sarsgaard’s skillful turn, handles this tonal shift with aplomb, adding welcome tension and heft to this largely low-key affair.

The filmmaker is also aided immensely by a talented production team including cinematographer Eric Lin, sound designers Grant Elder and Ian-Gaffney Rosenfeld (the movie provides a stirring “audio tour” of Manhattan), production designer Nora Mendis and composer Will Bates. A climactic thunderstorm proves a memorable example of these technicians’ combined abilities.

Although they only appear briefly, Tracee Chimo and Alex Karpovsky as Ellen’s Brooklyn friends who recommend her to Peter, Tina Benko playing the wary editor of an elite academic journal and Bruce Altman as the glad-handing head of a new-agey corporation called Sensory Holdings also bring their A-games.

'The Sound of Silence'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 13, Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; also on VOD