A project that director Duncan Jones has been trying to get made for the better part of the last decade, Mute is a messy sci-fi noir that will leave fans of the director speechless.
Set in a futuristic Berlin that borrows heavily from Blade Runner’s aesthetic, the primary storyline follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), an Amish-raised bartender looking for his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) who has gone missing. Due to a childhood accident Leo is rendered unable to speak, communicating via electronic devices and body language. A challenge for many actors, Skarsgard manages to make for a compassionate protagonist from his sheer presence alone.
Leo pursues a journey that leads him into a dark and grungy underworld, with a cast of colorful characters. This is the point where Mute gets really strange, as we are introduced to Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd with incredible facial hair) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux in an incredible wig), former military surgeons who do underground work with the hope they can one day return to the United States. More than half of the film is devoted to them and their antics, which become hard to watch as they are both seriously unhinged individuals (Cactus is prone to sudden acts of violence, Duck is a pedophile who videotapes young girls in his office).
While their story is intertwined with Leo’s, after sometime it becomes taxing to halt the mystery of the narrative to hang out with these two degenerates, not being quite sure of what the point of it is. Jones had a hand in casting the roles, and while it’s interesting to see an actor like Rudd outside of his regular comedy comfort zone, the part can’t help but feel like a miscast, especially when his attempts to be menacing occupy awkward territory. In one of the film’s more questionable moments, an altercation over Duck’s creepy behavior and Cactus’s role as an overprotective father suddenly does a 180 as Cactus invites his friend out to get drunk. This was the part where I had to stop the movie and accept that it wasn’t going to get any better.
The reasons behind the project’s long period of time to become realized are evident early on. Being one of Jones’ very first scripts, it’s rough around the edges and jarringly moves between two plots in such a way that quickly deflates any and all enthusiasm before the end of the first act. I understand why a lot of people like Duncan Jones as a director, as he started out strong with Moon and Source Code, before belly flopping with the seriously misguided Warcraft (a hard sell for most mainstream audiences despite doing ridiculous business in China). He’s the kind of director who wears his influences on his sleeve and tends to incorporate a lot of flashy visual elements, but in terms of crafting a multi-layered story he tends to fall short.
Much of the film feels like Jones trying really hard to craft another intriguing cult sci-fi film like his debut Moon (of which is set in the same universe as Mute) and going so far that the end result is a constant bore. There is nothing all that intriguing that you haven’t seen before in other sci-fi films, nor is there much appeal once the premise is established. Even the production/set design feels cheap despite a number of odd flourishes such as robots equipped with genitals. It is the rare genre film that manages to be simultaneously curious and tedious - never striking the tone it aspires to, with more sentimental touches getting lost in the effort to provide a contemporary gumshoe plot.
At the end of the day though, Mute would not have been made period without the assistance of Netflix, and this is where things get complicated. Jones devoted a large part of his career to getting this film made, and with Netflix’s help it finally happened. Some credit has to be given to the streaming giant for taking a chance on such an idea, even with the eventual short notice prior to release that indicates their own disappointment with the end product. In taking an idea that was first composed before Jones became famous from page to screen several years later, the various shortcomings make it clear that perhaps Mute shouldn’t have been made at all.