2016 was a rough year for writer-director Duncan Jones. He lost his father to cancer. The film he spent years developing, Warcraft, was a box office flop drubbed by critics (though it do incredible business in China and has its dedicated fans). Throughout all the adversity, Duncan Jones persevered and was able to get Netflix to back his next film, Mute, which the director had been trying to get made even before his stellar debut Moon. Mute somewhat represents a return to form for Duncan Jones after Warcraft, though it never is able to hit the highs of his first two features, the aforementioned Moon and Source Code. The film is full of colorful imagery and meticulous design, but is often bogged down by its deliberate pacing that takes its time in unfolding the central mystery before flying off the rails with an absolutely bonkers and ineffective final act.
The first image of Mute is a child underwater, blood seeping into the clear liquid from wounds on his neck and chest. His family being Amish opt against any surgery that would repair his ravaged vocal chords. Years later, that young boy, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), is entirely grown and living in the neon-infused world of a futuristic Berlin. He works as a bartender in a sleazy nightclub owned by the Russian gangster Maksim (Gilbert Owuor). Leo’s girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) also works there as a cocktail waitress. They’re relationship flourishes because of Leo’s kindness which transcends his inability to speak and complete lack of interest in embracing new technology. The life of Leo in the neon grime of Berlin is one of solitude that has only been alleviated by the presence of the kind and caring Naadirah. When she tries to unburden herself of a secret to Leo, the mute man writes that as long as she’s not leaving him it doesn’t matter much. The next morning, Naadirah is gone and Leo must search the seedy corners of Berlin to find his lost love.
Intersecting with Leo’s search for his lost love are the duo of doctors Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), who often perform illicit surgeries whenever one of Maksim’s foot soldiers gets wounded. Cactus Bill is AWOL from the American Army which is currently engaged in a variety of international skirmishes as are the current German regime, not that we’re given too much information as to the international political landscape surrounding Mute. Bill simply wants forged passports for himself and his daughter Josie (Mia-Sophie Bastin). How these two separate stories completely intersect is something that won’t be resolved until Mute reaches its conclusion.
Playing a character trapped in silence, Alexander Skarsgård brings a strong performance to Mute. He brings a physicality that is captivating to behold and really represents quite possibly the best performance of his young career. Never once are you left guessing what’s racing through the mind of Leo as he traverses the streets of Berlin. It’s all there on Skarsgård’s face. Unfortunately, his performance starts to get lost in the bizarre plotting employed by Duncan Jones and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson. You know exactly what Leo is after. The character’s motivations are crystal clear but the film’s plot is muddled and takes quite a while before escalating and thus bringing some kind of tension to the lush visuals.
Further muddying the waters of Mute are some rather bewildering storytelling choices. In this particular vision of the future, there’s a ton of prostitution going on. Part of Leo’s journey in search of Naadirah has him encountering pimps who run brothels. The mute man on a mission also runs into Luba (Robert Sheehan) a number of times, and the androgynous friend of Naadirah who once worked at the same nightclub is turning a variety of tricks in different guises. At the same time, Cactus Bill and Duck also spend quite a bit of time in brothels, and Bill often leaves his beloved daughter in the care of kindhearted prostitutes who are also, I guess, quite adept at babysitting. Then there’s also a pedophilia subplot that veers into spoiler territory, so I won’t give anything away as to the details but none of this twisted subplot is handled with either smarts or subtlety. The queasiness that these scenes induce are ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of the film, making their inclusion all the more confounding.
Even though I do find a number of issues within Mute, it’s simply a marvel to look at. Duncan Jones and his production team have crafted a vivid futuristic world drenched in neon that is along the lines of Blade Runner and its ilk. Jones is also fantastic stylist with his camera, playing around with a number stunning transitions and compositions. This is one of those cases where you really wish the script was operating at the level of its production team.
Another impressive aspect of Mute is the nuanced performance by Paul Rudd, undoubtedly one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. There’s an affability that is natural to Rudd and he brings it to most of his film roles. Here, however, he’s given so many more shades of moral complexity that it really allows the actor to explore a side of him that just has never made its way to the screen before. Once again, though, those script issues creep in and start to undermine Rudd’s incredibly strong and nuanced performance.
Nothing is going to stop Netflix on their path to world domination. Their original movie output so far has been, well, a bit all over the place, and Mute is really the perfect example of that scattershot nature. There are great ideas and some incredible design on display that have to contend with aspects of the script and story that might’ve been better excised. Some of the major storytelling decisions on display in Mute really make me wish that Duncan Jones cede scripting duties in the future because he’s still an incredibly impressive director. Mute isn’t an all-encompassing disaster a la Bright, but it’s still has to be counted as a disappointment because it has so much going for it and yet just can’t make them come together in a movie that consistently works.
An absolute triumph of production design, Mute is absolutely stunning to behold visually but the solid performances of Alexander Skarsgård and Paul Rudd get lost in a plot that is sometimes muddled and other times downright confounding.