There’s something satisfying, almost hypnotic, watching someone commit their entire being and focus to their trade, no matter how unusual or seemingly trivial that trade might be to laypeople. That’s why films about perfectionists who live every waking moment thinking about their craft and executing it with utmost patience and meticulousness are fascinating to audiences, since few of us get a taste of what it feels like to fully commit to a singular passion.
In co-writer/director Michael Tybursky’s unevenly paced but singular slow-burn feature debut, The Sound of Silence, Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard) is such a character. He’s a “house tuner” who’s obsessed with how sounds normal people might not even pick up can have profound effects on their everyday lives. So he has built a business for himself wherein he’ll visit a client’s home, meticulously listen to and record every single noise that emits from the location while it’s supposedly in complete silence, until eventually he pinpoints the issue that plagues the resident. Inexplicably anxious while home and having trouble resting properly? It turns out that the low hum that’s emitting from your stainless steel toaster is in a different key than the other appliances in your kitchen, and this imbalance is causing your mental disruption.
Peter’s work is apparently as effective, since everyone who uses his services reports a miracle cure to whatever mental issues ailed them. This string of successful results leads to a constant stream of clients and even a corporation that’s interested in buying Peter’s methods for a wider but streamlined appeal. (This latter opportunity draws his ire and disgust at even the thought that such delicate work can be conveniently packaged as a mainstream service, despite how much moolah such a venture can make him.) During his spare time, Peter predictably engages in more listening, this time spending hours picking up different noises in different public spaces in New York City, no easy feat considering the cacophony of sounds present every second of every day.
His theory is that specific sounds subconsciously direct people to engage in specific actions depending on where they are in the city at any given time. Where there’s chaos, he sees order, and thus finds solace. One of the most unique actors of his generation, Sarsgaard’s bread and butter lies in roles that either suppress all neuroses while desperately trying to put on a façade of normalcy, or explosive extroverts who border on out-and-out personality disorders. His performances are either a zero or a hundred on the intensity scale, and he manages to pull himself down to a minus ten here. Peter is so soft-spoken and introverted that he comes across as a walking, talking ASMR video.
As for story structure and narrative elements, Tybursky appears almost disinterested in any forward momentum for plot or character development for the first two acts of his film. It’s a character study, to be fair, but the pacing also stalls a bit after the first act because we’re not given much beside Peter’s day-to-day activities. Whatever inciting incident that can be pinpointed centers on Peter’s inability to “cure” the inexplicable anxiety and restlessness of a client, a forlorn single woman named Ellen (Rashida Jones). Perhaps this problem persists because he’s developing romantic feelings for Ellen, and this personal hang-up is affecting his concentration.
A clear relationship between these two characters, apparently both feeling alone in a sea of people and looking for some form of an intimate connection, doesn’t get underway until we’re almost done with the second act. This leaves writers Tybursky and Ben Nabors with five minutes to develop this relationship before the obligatory second act break results in an awkward moment of self-reflection and emotional disconnect between Peter and Ellen. Their central argument about whether there’s a pattern for everything or whether we rule our own free will could have held more thematic weight if we got to know these characters and their dynamic a bit better.
Ellen is especially underdeveloped, as Tybursky maintains a cerebral distance between her and the audience. It’s easy to imagine a draft of this story told from Ellen’s point-of-view, her life turned upside down due to an eccentric “house tuner” who eventually obsesses over her because she’s the only one who he can’t “fix.” Such a premise could have resulted in a more balanced protagonist/supporting character setup, since our interest in a one-track personality like Peter, no matter how unique that track might be, eventually falters without a clear story to hang onto.
That said, it’s easy to imagine a niche audience made up of religiously devout audiophiles and people who study the psychological effects of sound finding a lot to admire in The Sound of Silence. Tybursky and his sound crew predictably, but nevertheless admirably, put a lot of attention on how every single sound affects the characters depending on their surroundings. Cinematographer Eric Lin’s cool autumn NYC aesthetic subtly captures the frigidity of the characters. While not quite a complete experience that sticks the landing, The Sound of Silence is nevertheless an impressive debut from a fresh new filmmaker.
Director: Michael Tybursky
Writer: Michael Tybursky, Ben Nabors
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman, Tina Benko
Release Date: September 13, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.