[NOTE: An official selection of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival]
Who says there couldn’t be space for a certain niche form of weirdness in our indie arthouse dramadies these days? That is a question I had found myself craving the answer to after one of the more uniquely premised films to emerge out of Sundance, about a man who calls himself a “house tuner” out of all other professions and embraces an aural landscape where the trained ear will be unfortunately unprepared. The Sound of Silence is exactly that, an abstractly different dark comedy that accepts the impossible fate of noiselessness. Most movies would consider that a depressing ending that’s reached far too soon, and I fear most audiences will fail to understand its supposed quirk, of which it’s rather a welcome interlude from the bombastic wall of sound most big budget tentpoles will work towards. Those who will, I’m confident will see, and hear the value of momentary quiet, and overly frequent exposition, to build one’s character.
Sound of Silence stars Peter Sarsgaard as the noted Manhattan-based “house tuner” Peter Lucien. Call him a tonal psychiatrist, one who listens through the ambient noises in private dwellings, and catalog them for future reference, to build a distressed patient’s case study. He is a considerable eccentric who lives for his warmly praised work, even during his off-hours where he’s even fine-tuning the sonic levels of the outside world. But not every client could be fully pleased, and his greatest challenge is firmly reached through insomniac and breakup survivor Ellen (Rashida Jones). The more often they see each other, the more she opens up to him, developing into a very close friendship if it were believable enough. And that does leave him unsettled and doubtful, questioning the quality in his work.
First-time director Michael Tyburski, and co-screenwriter Ben Nabors are setting an unfathomable task before them, adapting from their previous 2013 short film Palimpsest. To speak without really needing to say much, easier said than done. And thus, the pair can’t completely avoid using words to illustrate Peter’s plight, his struggle, his conflict against a sound relationship with, well, sound. Sarsgaard’s portrayal of this loose-fitting obsessive is on point, if not a little haunting. Like we’ve all had that friend who enjoys what he does but is best when left alone. Socially inept, soft-spoken, mostly comfortable with his esteemed profession, but can’t quite play well with other humans. Miss Jones is easily at her best mode since Angie Tribeca, as the introspective person who despite her own personal issues, can throw a curveball toward a new friend, make them feel more complete in their lives.
And their chemistry can’t be ignored, even if she’s the more active to drive the momentum forward. Theirs is as visually genuine as the tones around them in the auditory sense. When we fear that it can’t quite click, it manages to. Tyburski finds a way, through sheer ambition that is just impossible to peg down, knowing he can’t keep his tale firmly on the ground. Silence is, for sure, a high-concept tale that deserves to fly; don’t expect its wings to have been truly earned until an eye-poppingly beautiful climax. Until then, we sense a blurry struggle for Peter, one made clearer over time. And even if the film’s only 87 minutes long, it still feels lengthy in achieving full clarity.
Helping Sarsgaard and Tyburski along is perhaps the natural ambient noise of the big city itself, never consistent and filled with hidden treasures one wouldn’t necessarily think to actively search for. Add to that a few choice supporting performances made to benefit Peter’s sonic realignment, per se. Among them, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a wonderful showstopper, serving as a research student/assistant in Peter’s office, and perhaps an absent-minded friend of sorts. He’s sufficiently enjoyable, and yet slightly underutilized. One of Peter’s old professors (Austin Pendleton) maintains a steady presence as well, as does the editor of a notable scholarly editor (Tina Benko), through whom he could perhaps build his credibility, without it being fully about the patients or the pay. Of course, both works together in an awkward feedback loop. And as solemn as Peter stays, we can tell he wants far more for his career, without necessarily selling out his line of work. A big new-age outfit and their freewheeling leader (Bruce Altman) may prove a late-game foe to our oddball’s ideals.
But of course, the focus remains obvious: it’s the proverbial sonic resonance Tyburski develops that makes The Sound of Silence an enjoyable, minimalist trip through our perception of noise. Supported well by the work of sound designers Grant Elder and Ian-Gaffney Rosenfeld, and the stark cinematographical choices of Eric Lin (Hearts Beat Loud), Tyburski makes an incomparable debut as a talent worth watching for. I dare you to find a more effective manner of making a lightning storm (and its aftermath) appear beautifully ethereal, almost frightening, and no less dramatically gripping.
Even four months after my eyes bore witness to this film and its quirks, the faint memory has never completely faded. I automatically will sympathize with those who won’t be able to fully appreciate such an effective high-concept work. Rejecting Sarsgaard’s otherwise whimsical performance against a myriad of silent darkness would be a mild fool’s errand. When it manages to click together, and prove it can stay in tune, and that will vary for everyone, it will easily stay that way. (3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Sound of Silence opens at Seattle’s Varsity Theater today, and available digitally; film not rated; 87 minutes.