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‘The Sound of Silence’ Review: Plenty to Hear, but What Does It Mean?

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There’s something about a movie that goes out of its way to embrace the quiet — to make the audience really listen and be fully aware of every snippet of sound or sliver of silence — that feels refreshingly rare. In a medium that can be so reliant on character banter and song-stuffed sound cues, it can be powerful to be forced to concentrate on hearing noiselessness, so that the little sound that does occur is that much more meaningful.

“The Sound of Silence,” the feature debut of the director Michael Tyburski (who also wrote the screenplay with Ben Nabors), attempts to wield this power but does more telling than showing. Peter Sarsgaard plays Peter Lucien, a professional house tuner in New York City who assesses the ambient noise in people’s homes (electrical appliances, wind patterns) to pinpoint the source of their anxiety, depression or fatigue. Peter, a quiet observer deliberate in his choice of words, is painstaking in his efforts: The job is his life, and when he’s not acting as an apartment-whisperer, he’s out and about all over the city with tuning forks, mapping out the sonic patterns of each block and neighborhood.

Peter’s near-fanatical devotion to his work has served him well as the movie begins: His many satisfied clients leave him voice mail messages of effusive praise for changing their lives; he’s been profiled in The New Yorker. But he becomes unsettled when his diagnosis and proposed solution for Ellen (Rashida Jones), a nonprofit worker, fails to solve her chronic sleep issues. As he tries to get to the root of her problems (including the lingering pain from the demise of a long-term relationship), they develop something like a friendship, or an amiable case of opposites-must-interact.

The movie swells with grand ideas about our relationships with sound and with one another, often put forth through Peter’s soft-spoken voice, which oscillates between calming and eerie, or through the quiet and hum of city noises and orchestral music. But there isn’t much there there — the film’s sonic experimentation is decoration hung on a thin character. As stirring as Sarsgaard is in conveying Peter’s eccentricities, he can’t quite transcend the well-worn narrative trope of the obsessive oddball (usually a white man) who is unable to connect deeply with others.

Tyburski and Nabors do question their enigmatic protagonist somewhat: Though Peter’s research attracts the interest of a tech company hoping to capitalize on his findings, it’s met with skepticism from the academics and scholars he wants to please most. The suggestion that Peter, like the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, might not be as groundbreaking as he thinks is the most compelling and least proverbial conflict raised in the movie — yet the screenplay skims over it to focus on the conventional dynamic between the often irascible Peter and the more optimistic Ellen, who challenges him on his rigid view of the world.

“The Sound of Silence” wants to be heard, but, in the end, doesn’t have much to say.

The Sound of Silence

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

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‘No One Believes Anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News

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The loss of shared facts can be corrosive for rational discourse, as in Russia, where political leaders learned to use the online explosion far ahead of the United States.

“They spread this sense that people live in a world of endless conspiracy, and the truth is unknowable, and all that’s left in this confusing world is me,” said Peter Pomerantsev, author of “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.” He was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian rulers. Mr. Trump, he said, has that style too.

Mr. Pomerantsev, who worked in a Russian television station in the early 2000s, said there is a transgressive thrill in strong leaders thumbing their nose at the facts.

“We slightly miss the point if we don’t understand how much pleasure their supporters derive from this,” he said. “Did he really say that? You can’t stop watching him. It’s partly about power. But it’s also anarchic, and there’s a weird freedom in that.”

Mr. Trump’s approach does not appeal to everyone, though, even in his own party.

“I do not support this brand of politics — any time there is any type of controversy, you just flatly deny it and you do it over and over until people are exhausted and move on,” said Mr. Memory, the computer programmer. Mr. Memory, a registered Republican, said that was why he did not vote for Mr. Trump.

But he said he sees bias among liberal news outlets and that drives him crazy too. He was annoyed, for example, that stories of Mr. Trump being booed at the Washington Nationals baseball game were given top billing, but when Mr. Trump was cheered in Alabama a few days later, he could find almost nothing about it.

“I don’t think things are fake, they’re just one-sided,” said Mr. Memory, 37. “Both things happened. He got booed and he got cheered. But one of them will be a much bigger story. That’s what bothers me.”

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What’s on TV Monday: ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ on Criterion and a PBS Documentary

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AN ELEPHANT SITTING STILL (2019) Stream on The Criterion Channel. Hu Bo’s first and only feature film follows four characters over the course of a single day in a grimly industrial city in Northern China. For almost four hours their lonely, depressing lives are slowly woven together against the backdrop of a stifling society and an indifferent world and. After one character, Wei Bu (Peng Yuchang), a student at a mediocre school, sees his attempt to stand up to a bully backfire, he flees the bully’s brother, Yu Cheng (Zhang Yu). He is joined by Huang Ling (Wang Yuwen), a classmate embroiled in an affair with a school official, and Wang Jin (Liu Congxi), a man estranged from his family. “Unsparing as Hu’s anatomy of moral drift may be, there is something graceful in his sympathetic attention to lives defined almost entirely by disappointment and diminished hope,” A.O. Scott wrote in his review for The Times.

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