Film Review: ‘The Sound of Silence’: Bad Apartment Soundscapes Can Make You Sick

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
September 15, 2019 Updated: September 15, 2019

Unrated | | Drama | 13 September 2019 (USA)

In “The Sound of Silence,” Peter Sarsgaard plays a man who “tunes” people’s apartments. What’s that?

Maybe you feel sick and maybe you heard from a friend of a friend about a guy who comes over to your apartment, wanders around striking tuning forks, listens meditatively, fiddles with faucets, knocks on walls, scribbles notes … and voilà: He diagnoses that your toaster is audially out of tune with your refrigerator. Maybe together the appliances create dissonance in the form of a tritone—the “Devil’s interval.”

“Like the Beast, it goes by many names: ‘Diabolus in musica’ (devil in music), the devil’s interval, the tritone, the triad and the flatted fifth. As its Latin moniker suggests, it’s an evil sounding combination of notes that’s designed to create a chilling or foreboding atmosphere,” as puts it.

The prescription? Buy a new toaster and your depression will disappear.

The magic of this movie is that, especially as a New Yorker, you wonder why you haven’t heard of this guy before. This is a classic, neurotic, therapy-rife, New Yorker type thing: “So, what do you do?” “Well I’m a musician, but my sideline is house-tuning.” This fictitious, audial feng shui profession is probably taking root someplace in Brooklyn as we speak.

hand holding piece of paper
A “house tuner” appointment notice, in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

“The Sound of Silence” is secondarily a minuscule romance, which Peter Sarsgaard and Rashida Jones nail, given what they have to work with, but it’s a scanty script. All in all, though, it’s a quiet little story that contains a wallop of a potential healing lesson for humanity, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the premier functions of good art.

Can Sound Actually Cause Illness?

A random googling of “Can sound cause illness?” turns up an article that pulls together some actual science, titled “Why Do Some Sounds Make People Sick?” by Andrew LaSane:  “… low-frequency resonance affects the body … Vibration leads to both voluntary and involuntary contractions of muscles, and can cause local muscle fatigue … ”

So it’s not just pseudoscience—good sound can heal, and bad sound can wreak havoc. This fact is intuitable throughout this film and gives it a grounded feel.

Peter Lucian (Sarsgaard) has an rare, exquisite talent for hearing. He’s like Dr. Seuss’s rabbit in “The Big Brag”: “Do you know what I heard? Do you see that far mountain … ? It’s ninety miles off. There’s a fly on that mountain. I just heard him cough.”

Peter followed his bliss as a self-taught scientist. He’s got a methodology, he’s taking measurements, and he’s charting sounds. In fact, he’s charting all of Manhattan’s various districts according to their soundscapes. He’s got a big, labeled map of it hanging in his former bomb shelter of an apartment, and he’s hired a Ph.D. candidate as an assistant. Peter’s going to write a scientific treatise, he’s going to stake his flag, and he’s going to put house-tuning on the map, literally.

two men in a homemade lab
Peter Sarsgaard (L) as a scientist and Tony Revolori as his assistant in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

When the Hero Falls off the Cliff, He Finds the Ally

This is a Hero’s Journey tale of taking the path less trodden. And all goes well for a time. But then he reaches the stage of the journey where the hero falls of the cliff: Ellen Chasen (Rashida Jones) hires him to tune her apartment. She’s in the throes of depression and feeling exhausted because she’s unable to let go of an old relationship.

a man a woman and a toaster
Peter Sarsgaard and Rashida Jones as “house tuner” and “patient” in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

Peter shows up, does his diagnosing thing, prescribes a new toaster … annnnd—no go. Doesn’t work at all. Her exhaustion is not cured. She’s not buying his method.

This coincides with Peter’s doing a bit of networking and having the premier scientist in his field (whom he idolizes) more or less diss him as a quack.

His world unravels. He clangs his tuning forks repeatedly in desperation in Central Park, walking in circles, unable anymore to hear what he used to think he heard; his world goes into a tailspin, and he flings the tools of his trade to the ground.

a man listens to a tuning fork
Peter Sarsgaard as a “house tuner” in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

Perhaps he fancies himself a scientist … but what he really does … is art?

This is why Ellen enters Peter’s life. She provides the missing piece, which is perhaps the fact that he’s too unbalanced and out of touch with the people whose sound problems he’s attempting to diagnose. He must grow as a person before the journey can be completed. He’s comfortable with objects and things—faucets, radiators, and soundscapes—but uncomfortable with people. The Hero’s Journey calls for well-roundedness, and out-of-the-comfort-zone spiritual growth.

a woman sits in a chair
Rashida Jones in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

There’s a subplot about corporate entrepreneurs drawn like moths to Peter’s flame, who’d like nothing more than to slickly package his vision and sell it as patented sound-customization for living spaces—bespoke health-soundscaping, as it were.

Peter’s, of course, a purist and not in it for the money; he’s deeply insulted and repelled by such a sordidly capitalist concept. Cliché, but well-played by Sarsgaard.

Sarsgaard delivers a nuanced, highly believable performance, depicting the range of humility of such a man, and an intractable personality, tinged with delusions of grandeur and ego, which paradoxically accompany those with this kind of groundbreaking talent.

a man at a desk
Peter Sarsgaard as a “house tuner” in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

The relationship, though, is a tad too facile and predictable. Will Peter eventually realize his dream? Or will the dour, non-idealistic outlook that commerce ultimately wins, prevail?

As mentioned, the strength of this film is that it will get people thinking about their personal feng shui. It is said, in certain Eastern philosophical interpretations, that all inanimate objects existing in our physical dimension (such as leaves, walls, trash cans, etc.) have multiple layers that exist simultaneously in other dimensions, and in those dimensions everything is alive and can talk to you. That is, should you learn, like Neo in “The Matrix,” to enter other dimensions.

And so maybe we need to ask ourselves, “Do I need this sweater I haven’t worn in years? Is it unhappy in another dimension? Would it feel more like it was fulfilling its sweater destiny if I donated it to the homeless? Is my refrigerator unhappy containing that carton of completely rancid milk? Is any object in my living space that doesn’t have a meaning and purpose a happy object? Or is it perhaps radiating soundwaves of stagnation and boredom?”

Our environment reflects us, which includes the soundscapes we live in. Food for thought.

a man with two tuning forks
Peter Sarsgaard as a “house tuner” in “The Sound of Silence.” (Auditory Pictures LLC)

‘The Sound of Silence’
Director: Michael Tyburski
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman, Tina Benko
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 13
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch