Imagine “The Conversation” — and its closed-up character’s sonic filter on a troubled world — as a platonic romance instead of a paranoid thriller, and you’ll have some idea of how Michael Tyburski’s feature debut “The Sound of Silence” plays as it studies the debilitating obsessiveness of an urban loner confronted with human complexity.
Chilly yet compassionate, anchored by both a characteristically deep-set portrait of off-putting intelligence from Peter Sarsgaard and a poignant turn by Rashida Jones, it’s a delicate oddity that won’t necessarily replace any of your favorite cinematic New York couplings, but it’ll remind you why we often respond to an unlikely pairing built around smarts, sadness and hope.
Sarsgaard’s character Peter Lucian, bearded and calmly arrogant in the manner of a professor, is a self-described “house tuner,” a sound expert for hire who answers the call of unsettled New Yorkers open to finding a remedy in Peter’s method. He assesses a living space’s mix of ambient tones — whether from electrical appliances, construction quirks, or outside atmospheric factors — to determine what external solution will produce the sound that subliminally alters a person’s mood. (In the opening scene, he tells a customer his anxiety can be traced to a discordant note from the radiator.)
A specialized eccentric living in a converted fallout shelter that he’s turned into a noise-canceling, analog man-cave of recording-playing devices (shades of surveillance king Harry Caul’s work cage in “The Conversation”), Peter subsists on his word-of-mouth tuner gigs — in a perfect script detail, he’s even been a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” subject — but sees true deliverance in what’s occupied him for years: a mapping of New York’s sonic makeup that, to his mind, amounts to an undiscovered universal law detailing how sound influences human emotions.
When he’s not aurally assessing clients’ apartments, or convincing his kindly professor friend (Austin Pendleton) of his project’s academic worth, he’s out amidst the city’s thrums and dins with tuning forks, listening for hidden tone patterns that will explain everything from Times Square’s vibrancy to Central Park’s lyricism.
What throws this cautious, methodical man off his game is messiness. There’s the looming threat of academic rejection — which spurs him to hire an assistant (Tony Revolori, “Spider-Man: Far From Home”) — but also the case of charity worker Ellen (Jones), whose new Peter-approved toaster isn’t solving her sleeplessness or apprehension. Ellen is as invested in repairing her loneliness as he is in proving his theories of sound will do just that, but while she embarks on her version of a solution (namely, being social with this curious figure) he tends to retreat into a shell of embittered solitude when others don’t see or hear things the way he does.
Expanding upon his short film “Palimpsest,” Tyburski and co-screenwriter Ben Nabors have created a memorably single-minded protagonist in Peter, and Sarsgaard finds an almost sensual serenity in the everyday gravity of his assuredness, even as the film gingerly weaves both a pensive quality and a deadpan wit. At times Peter is an easily romantic figure; when his guard is down slightly and the joy enters his understated delivery as he talks about knowing there’s a master harmony determining our behavior, you want to believe him. (As for the movie’s own aural qualities, Will Bates’ solid score and the nicely layered sound design of Grant Elder and Ian Gaffney-Rosenfeld do much to make manifest the world as Peter experiences it, truly and psychologically.)
Tyburski and Nabors also do a fine job setting Peter up with interactions that put us on his side, as when he accepts a meeting with a glad-handing tech entrepreneur (Bruce Altman) who wants Peter to help sell personalized atmospheres as the latest home improvement trend. It’s a believably knotty contrast between an unapologetic opportunist and a science-minded purist, the exchange filling Peter with barely concealed disgust at the thought of his precious research coopted for corporate gain.
It’s in the slow-simmer relationship with Ellen, though, where the movie finds its gentlest hum. Sarsgaard and Jones show the type of chemistry that doesn’t arise from obvious spark — whether they’re feeling each other out as friends or lovers is almost its own mystery — but from a kind of unspoken vulnerability and presence of mind. Whether politely talking, politely arguing, or appreciating a silence together — as in the poetic final moments during a citywide blackout (artfully rendered by cinematographer Eric Lin, who does finely textured work throughout) — they truly are the top tones in any room, looking for a harmonic convergence when the world makes connecting harder than ever.
It might have served the movie better if Peter’s and Ellen’s separate sorrows (whatever created his armor and her loneliness) were given some explanation. But the actors still make the willful opacity work as an ever-present emotional force, and it’s that human attention that helps give Tyburski’s carefully crafted ode to the enduring appeal of quixotic searchers its wonderfully small-scale grace.