Sundance Review: “The Sound of Silence”

A successful “house tuner” in New York City, who calibrates the sound in people’s homes in order to adjust their moods, meets a client with a problem he can’t solve.

by Mark Elijah Rosenberg

Rooftop Films was founded on the principle that there are secret spaces throughout New York, and curious people who want to find new ways of examining the world. We seek out the untrammeled nooks and crannies of the city, and invite the bold and the brave to discover artistic harmony in unexpected places. The Sound of Silence is a charming and incisive film about a classically unique New Yorker, finagling his way into the private terrain of strangers’ apartments, in order to help them find peace within their chaotic surroundings. In other words, it’s a perfect movie for Rooftop Films, and I’m proud we gave it the prestigious Eastern Effects grant, providing the lighting and grip equipment for the production.

Lucien (played by Peter Sarsgaard) is a house-tuner, the fictional but believable job in which he examines and adjusts the acoustics of apartments (from their toasters to their radiators) in accordance with the dominant sounds of their neighborhood. In a city other than New York, the tone of his job would take on a different timbre: in Los Angeles, he’d be a new age guru, with wacky ideas of wellness, imbued with mysticism and pseudo-science; in London, he’d be a member of a Sherlock Holmes-era royal society, wearing tweed and meeting like-minded Fellows in book-filled drawing rooms; in Tokyo, he’d be part of a cutting-edge tech corp, emotionlessly programming human emotions. There’s a bit of all that in Lucien’s world, but he rejects it all with a distinctly New York passion: he’s aiming to be a legitimate scientist, an artist, and someone who (from his cloistered fallout shelter basement apartment) deeply cares about the well-being of every individual in the city.

The film could’ve fallen into the trap of being utterly self-referential, infatuated only with exploring the odd quirks of this bizarre profession, without any deeper meaning or emotional connection; but there’s just enough oddball artifacts to intrigue, and plenty of urban philosophy and character development to stimulate and inspire. It’s a tranquil movie—even the shots designed to rattle and jar have a pleasant softness to them, and (as we learned at the Sundance Q&A) director Michael Tyburski began the shoot with a moment of silence—and the images are delicately lovely, never overstated, with ideas and passions that run deep.

Lucien’s obsession with his work both attracts a love interest and eventually repels her, and the film alights upon a grander harmony. Lucien’s resistance to alternative uses for his studies bears a correlation for the opposition to the various gentrifying forces subduing the life out of our city, but the critique is nuanced (given the irony that some might say Lucien’s trade is one more softening of the city’s characteristic and character-building abrasiveness). It’s fitting that Lucien himself is broken by the New York’s unbending disarray, before he’s elevated by a fantastic breakdown of the infrastructure he aims to control. A film that revels in minute details and subtleties finishes with a transcendently beautiful vision: a great reign of silence and darkness, fitting for this iconoclastic love letter to New York. It would be delightful to bring The Sound of Silence to a rooftop this summer, to let the hushed roar of this masterful film play out across a New York night.