Peter Lucian, the hangdog protagonist of The Sound of Silence, has one of those unusual occupations, like “greeting card writer” or “exfiltration specialist,” that’s beloved by screenwriters. Played with straight-faced perfection by Peter Sarsgaard, Lucian is a New York City “house tuner,” which is like a primary care physician for ailing domiciles.
With tuning forks as tools — though he usually doesn’t need them — he wanders clients’ homes, room by room, measuring the scales emitted by appliances. In one, he identifies the culprit — a B-flat radiator disrupting the consonance of the space. In another house, the toaster is clearly the problem. Ascetic in his devotion to acoustic purity, he renders his diagnoses dispassionately and confidently, even if skeptical viewers, and his very clients, might take them for hokum.
Then again, these people paid money for a house tuner for issues probably unrelated to their homes’ audio signatures, but like other unproven modalities — reiki, tarot — what if it actually helps? Just for jollies, I Googled “house tuner near me,” and was unsurprised to find zero relevant hits, the algorithm suggesting piano tuners and, for some reason, auto parts. The profession seems to be a whole-cloth invention of co-writer/director Michael Tyburski, introduced in his 2013 short Palimpsest and now the subject of his debut feature.
The Sound of Silence works because of Tyburski’s fundamental respect for the character. Even in moments of wry humor, he never views Peter with ridicule, or dismisses his passions as quirks, which in itself is a vast improvement over John Lithgow’s mockingly presented doomsday prepper in this year’s The Tomorrow Man. The same goes for the world of acousticians with which Peter surrounds himself. “I love the ear,” says Sam (Tony Revolori), a teachers’ assistant who becomes an intern to Peter, and who studied cochlear neurons in mice. It’s a statement of genuine enthusiasm, and it’s infectious at that.
And yet, Peter exhibits trademarks of the madman. He lives in a converted basement fallout shelter engineered to block out the noise of the city. He records every client interaction with the fastidiousness of a paranoiac, and listens back to them with a vintage tape recorder straight out of The Conversation. When he’s not on the job, he’s working on a grandiose project — a macroscopic audio map of New York segmented, like the city’s grid system, into the differing scales he picks up at, say, Central Park or Wall Street or Midtown.
He believes his readings prove his theories on the relationship between acoustic environments and human behavior. He’s hoping to revolutionize the world of sound studies by publishing his findings in an academic journal, which we increasingly view as an unrealistic goal.
It might come as a disappointment to some that, when offered a character as fascinating and idiosyncratic as Peter Lucian, that The Sound of Silence becomes a boy-meets-girl movie. On a house call, Peter meets Ellen Chasen (Rashida Jones), an executive of a nonprofit, who is hoping to cure her lethargy by finding its source among her dissonant apartment interior. Though they share little in common, romantic tension is evident from their first superbly acted encounter, and almost despite themselves, they continue to rendezvous under the auspices of a client/contractor relationship.
Though the contours of a romantic-drama structure reveal themselves ever so faintly, Tyburski is smart enough to jettison the magical thinking of the coequal transformation, wherein the partners smooth over each other’s flaws in 90 neat minutes. In one of their interactions, Peter professes his admiration for composers like Beethoven, who, he analyzes, delay our gratification. Tyburski does much the same to our expectations of his characters’ courtship. The Sound of Silence is an anti-romance, rejecting more the generic tropes than it embraces.
The movie’s raison d’être lies more in its prologue than its coupling. Tyburski opens his movie with a perfectly chosen, black-and-white archive clip of an acoustician taking phonograph recordings of the noise pollution in Times Square, presumably in the 1930s or 1940s. His readings, he says, reveal that the average ambient clutter deprives us of precisely 42 percent of our hearing.
This is ultimately why Peter Lucian matters, and why we perhaps need someone like him outside of moviedom. In a device-addicted, soon-to-be 5G world in which disharmony is pervasive and true silence is ever harder to achieve, Peter breaks the din into pure tones, the chaos into order. Even if said order may be specious, it’s a comfort over the status quo.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE. Director: Michael Tyburski; Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Austin Pendleton; Distributor: IFC; not rated; Now playing at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood, O Cinema in Miami Beach. Opens Friday at Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables