Review: 'The Sound of Silence'

A loner savant takes his tuning forks to New York
IN TUNE: Peter Sarsgaard tweaks the sonic feng shui of Manhattan apartments in 'The Sound of Silence.'

An insular and sometimes attenuated tale of New York, Michael Tyburski's The Sound of Silence begins with a piece of elderly newsreel. We witness a first measuring of noise levels in Times Square with audio equipment sometime in the 1930s, conducted by a group of men in three-piece suits and hats. Early on, they recognized a most invasive part of city living: the racket.

In our time, Peter Sarsgaard, buttoned-down and with a beard to scratch, is Peter Lucian. He's a hermetic figure who calls himself a "house tuner." Lucian works on the sonic feng shui of Manhattan apartments. On the first case we see him crack, he ignores the pounding bass that leaks through a customer's walls from a neighbor's apartment. Instead, Lucian focuses on the more subtle disruption; the dissonance between the hum of a refrigerator and the tonic of the very neighborhood. By the time the movie ends, Lucian has claimed that Central Park is a G-major place, and that the financial district is tuned to what Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel said was the saddest of all keys, D-minor. (Odd that the city is all majors and minors; there are no up-and-coming hipster districts that are diminished sevenths or ninths.)

Lucian is the kind of odd character who would have been profiled by Joseph Mitchell or imagined by the cartoonist Ben Katchor; in fact the private man is suffering a little from fame, thanks to a "Talk of the Town" column in the New Yorker.

His newest client is Ellen Chasen (Rashida Jones), an Ohio transplant to NYC who's just gone through a bad breakup. She's tired all the time. If there's a certain allure in manic-pixies, there's also something attractive in sadness, of seeing the kind of person a viewer would daydream about try to comfort. Checking Ellen's apartment, Lucian has to lie on her bed. ("I typically save this part for last, because it's the most personal.") Ultimately he prescribes a toaster that hums in a different key.

Co-writer (with Tyburski) Ben Nabors' script is well-made in the sense that there's a lot of info packed in (and between) the lines. The mystery persists over whether or not Peter is just one more New Age charlatan. We hear a phone call from a deeply satisfied customer, but that's immaterial: New Age charlatans always have grateful clientele. We never see him collect money or consume anything more than a cup of tea, even when he goes to a party thrown by his mentor (the great Austin Pendleton).

If his ideas are all just a grand delusion, Lucian is portrayed as an artisan in his precision, and his fussiness. His bunker of an office is full of analog equipment and filing cabinets, and he composes notes on a typewriter. He still has a cassette-driven answering machine; it assures callers that they've got the right number but they called at the wrong time. (It's like an incident in John Cage's book Silences. Cage had a music teacher who wouldn't let him into the studio if he arrived even a minute early: "How can you be a musician without a sense of time!" the professor thundered.)

The tight-nerved Lucian has anxiety about getting his theories published before his ideas are swiped by a company called Sensory Holdings. They plan to do with an app what he usually does in person with his notebook, tape recorders and tuning forks. Lucian declines; the once harmonious New York soundscape affects him in the way the buzz and whine of electronics tortured Michael McKean's Chuck in Better Call Saul.

The movie gets strained, coasting on its cityscapes and Clara Rockmore's ethereal performance of Saint-Saens' "The Swan" on theremin. And then it gets slightly maudlin during a downpour, as the interesting unobservability of a new phenomenon decays into a standard romantic ending. The Sound of Silence is a thoughtful film, though; Sarsgaard is convincingly enigmatic, and observe how good Jones (formerly of Parks and Rec) is in this mode, in which her mirth is restrained to a bare minimum.

The Sound of Silence
Unrated, 85 Mins.
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose

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