The Sound of Silence

IFC Films

Last year I reviewed a movie called Sorry to Bother You, which was the directorial debut of rapper/music producer Boots Riley. I found that movie to be bloated but ambitious, and even though I pretty much hated the movie, I was impressed with Riley’s obvious talents and look forward to what he will do in the future. He took a kernel of a great idea and exploited it beyond all tolerable experience, but the artistic essence was impressive and it gave me great hope.

My feelings about another movie by a director making his feature debut are similar, but in a different way. The Sound of Silence, opening today, is the feature film debut of director Michael Tyburski. It stars Peter Sarsgaard as Peter Lucian, a “house tuner” in New York City—someone who you pay to come to your home and analyze its aural properties and to offer suggestions to calibrate the sounds in your home in order to make your life happier. Sort of a Marie Kondo for your ears. Ellen Chasen, played by Rashida Jones, is having trouble sleeping, so a friend recommends she hire Peter to come to her apartment to see if there is some sort of noise/sound/tonal issue that is causing her insomnia. That’s about it for plot. But that’s ok, because the movie isn’t about a story, it’s about a concept. Just like Sorry to Bother You was all about a concept, but the difference with The Sound of Silence is that the movie starts with the concept and just stays there. It doesn’t get bloated or ambitious, in fact, it does the opposite. You keep waiting for something to happen and then the movie ends. It’s a weird little movie, but I still found something pensive and peaceful about it.

There is a lyricism in the way Tyburski films this movie on location in New York City, which is certainly intended. We all take the sounds that surround us for granted, not often paying attention to how much noise and how many different sounds fill our heads all day every day, especially for those who live in an urban sprawl. It’s easy to think of police sirens or airplanes or leaf blowers, but how much do we pay attention to the gentle hum of our refrigerator or the whirring of our computer modem? What I did love about this movie is the love and attention it gives to this sense of ours that is perhaps the most unappreciated and definitely the most abused. Even as I sit here writing in this room with no music, no TV, no sound at all, I can hear the air conditioner, the fan, the refrigerator and the clock. When was the last time I noticed those? All this time I thought this room was quiet.

It is a lovely idea, this movie, as it explores the beauty of sound in a really poetic way, which I loved. But the problem is there is just not enough here to sustain a full-length movie. It’s based on a short film, and that’s probably where it should have stayed. The concept and themes are solid, but that’s not enough. In lieu of story, Tyburski and screenwriter Ben Nabors (whose short film it’s based on) try to make it a character study and even though they have two very talented actors in Sarsgaard and Jones, they just can’t break through to anything beyond the surface and their dialogue feels scripted and unnatural, all culminating in a final scene that feels so intentionally thematic that it hurts.

In an age where so many things are overdone, overblown and overwrought, it’s nice to have such a simple, quiet movie about a totally relatable and universal human experience. I never want movies like this to go away, I just need them to have just a little more meat on their bones. Or, should I say, treble in their bass.