There’s something about a movie that goes out of its way to embrace the quiet — to make the audience really listen and be fully aware of every snippet of sound or sliver of silence — that feels refreshingly rare. In a medium that can be so reliant on character banter and song-stuffed sound cues, it can be powerful to be forced to concentrate on hearing noiselessness, so that the little sound that does occur is that much more meaningful.
“The Sound of Silence,” the feature debut of the director Michael Tyburski (who also wrote the screenplay with Ben Nabors), attempts to wield this power but does more telling than showing. Peter Sarsgaard plays Peter Lucien, a professional house tuner in New York City who assesses the ambient noise in people’s homes (electrical appliances, wind patterns) to pinpoint the source of their anxiety, depression or fatigue. Peter, a quiet observer deliberate in his choice of words, is painstaking in his efforts: The job is his life, and when he’s not acting as an apartment-whisperer, he’s out and about all over the city with tuning forks, mapping out the sonic patterns of each block and neighborhood.
Peter’s near-fanatical devotion to his work has served him well as the movie begins: His many satisfied clients leave him voice mail messages of effusive praise for changing their lives; he’s been profiled in The New Yorker. But he becomes unsettled when his diagnosis and proposed solution for Ellen (Rashida Jones), a nonprofit worker, fails to solve her chronic sleep issues. As he tries to get to the root of her problems (including the lingering pain from the demise of a long-term relationship), they develop something like a friendship, or an amiable case of opposites-must-interact.
The movie swells with grand ideas about our relationships with sound and with one another, often put forth through Peter’s soft-spoken voice, which oscillates between calming and eerie, or through the quiet and hum of city noises and orchestral music. But there isn’t much there there — the film’s sonic experimentation is decoration hung on a thin character. As stirring as Sarsgaard is in conveying Peter’s eccentricities, he can’t quite transcend the well-worn narrative trope of the obsessive oddball (usually a white man) who is unable to connect deeply with others.
Tyburski and Nabors do question their enigmatic protagonist somewhat: Though Peter’s research attracts the interest of a tech company hoping to capitalize on his findings, it’s met with skepticism from the academics and scholars he wants to please most. The suggestion that Peter, like the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, might not be as groundbreaking as he thinks is the most compelling and least proverbial conflict raised in the movie — yet the screenplay skims over it to focus on the conventional dynamic between the often irascible Peter and the more optimistic Ellen, who challenges him on his rigid view of the world.