Duncan Jones | 126 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.00:1 | UK & Germany / English & German | 15
For those in the know, Mute was probably one of the most anticipated movies of 2018. The new film from writer-director Duncan Jones, who made waves with his excellent debut, the low-key sci-fi mystery/drama Moon, and backed it up with the strong sci-fi thriller Source Code, this was his return to that genre after an ultimately futile aside into studio blockbuster-making with Warcraft. More than that, it’s a passion project that’s been gestating for 16 years, rejected by everyone else and now only made possible by Netflix. Greatness was expected. Unfortunately, instead it’s been met with critical derision (11% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audience apathy (5.4 out of 10 and dropping on IMDb; 2.2 out of 5 on Letterboxd and heading in the same direction). Empire’s review perhaps summed it up best: “a crushing disappointment… sadly, almost tragically, not worth the wait.”
Set in near-future Berlin, the setting is probably the best part of the film. It’s extrapolated from the present to give a very convincing world, where technology has advanced in ways that already feel just around the corner. The production design also owes a huge debt to Blade Runner, though clearly on a lower budget. That doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, just familiar. It’s not quite as nihilistic as Blade Runner, though — again, this is our world a few years hence, and there are still malls and diners and libraries and other such mundanities.
The protagonist is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender getting by in a world not built for him: he’s Amish, meaning he avoids using most technology, and he’s mute, thanks to a childhood accident. As the story unfurls he has to engage with a bunch of tech for the first time, and when he comes up against devices that are only voice-controlled then he’s got a problem. I’m not sure if this is designed as a social commentary on how some people struggle now and it’ll be even worse in the world to come, or if it’s just a convenient way to put more obstacles in Leo’s path. I’m tempted towards the latter, but that’s okay. It seems his muteness is a barrier to some viewers, with critics describing him as a blank canvas, either unknowable or personality-free. I think that’s a bit harsh, but Leo does fall into the familiar bracket of the “strong, silent type”. He can’t express himself vocally, obviously, but rather than that leading to him letting his emotion out in other ways he seems to have repressed it. I got the impression that he was now having to deal with certain feelings, and how they’re expressed, for the very first time.
That’d be because Leo is now in love, with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired waitress at the club he works in. Naadirah clearly has secrets, both from Leo and from us, and when she goes missing Leo has to venture into the seedy underworld of future-Berlin as he tries to track her down. If the overt Blade Runner stylings hadn’t already clued you in, this is very much a noir detective movie, full to the brim with dark people and dark deeds. It gets grim indeed at times, more thematically than visually (though there are a couple of scenes of surgery, if that’s your particular bête noire), and this is where one begins to wonder if Jones has full control over his film’s tone.
That’s not much of a problem in Leo’s storyline — I’d wager you could recut Mute to focus on him entirely and create a more straightforward future-noir tale — but rather in the concurrently-told B-plot. This side of the film focuses on Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an army surgeon who deserted and now plies his trade for gangsters, hoping to afford passage back to the US for himself and his daughter. Bill works alongside his best mate Duck (Justin Theroux), and much of their half of the film plays more like a hang-out movie, just spending time with the characters as they go about their business. As they mooch around sharing comical buddy banter, it’s a definite tonal counterpoint to Leo’s story. That’s not necessarily a problem unless you want a straight-up serious noir, but later Bill and Duck’s thread diverges into some heavy territory; stuff that some viewers would find distasteful no matter what, but which is made more so as their chirpy-funsters act is allowed to roll through it.
For this reason I thought Mute was more effective in its first hour-or-so than in its second. Others disagree, calling it either slow or disjointed, because the links between Leo’s and Cactus Bill’s storylines are not immediately evident. I didn’t think the pace was a problem: it’s gradually drawing you into this world, setting out the mystery and then peeling back more layers as Leo begins his hunt. It’s not as dreamily atmospheric as Blade Runner 2049 in this regard, but it’s closer to that than to an action-thriller, which makes me tempted to say pace issues are a viewer problem rather than a film one. In the first half, at least, because by the second it does seem to go on a bit. As for the disconnect between the storylines, it didn’t bother me at all. Links are actually established early on, and you know these two halves are going to come together eventually — that’s how narrative structure works.
The idea some reviews are peddling that “maybe everyone else rejected the Mute screenplay for a reason” is disingenuous. If a decent exec wanted to make this kind of movie (i.e. a mid-budget sci-fi noir) then they definitely could have seen its potential. But few studios are interested in that kind of work anymore, for reasons that barely make sense, and so the film ended up passed to Netflix. One wonders if their hands-off approach is part of the problem. People complain about studio interference, and clearly that can scupper projects, especially ones with unique voices, but execs who are good at their jobs do improve movies. Jones has said that, after Netflix bought the project, they just gave him the money and let him make whatever; and they gave him final cut too, so when the finished film came in and they weren’t sure about it, they just went ahead and released it as-was. Maybe if someone had helped him develop the project better, had helped him even out the tone, or tighten up the pacing, we’d be looking at a great movie right now.
Instead, I don’t think the Mute we’ve got is anything like as unremittingly terrible as some reviews would have you believe, but it is a tonally strange film. I’m not sure it works as a whole, but bits really do. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of it becoming a cult classic, and maybe in a couple of years we’ll all be reevaluating it. Before its release Jones did say it would be a Marmite film — that some people would love it and others would absolutely hate it. Broad reception is undoubtedly hewing to the latter end of the spectrum; and while I’d love to be the former instead, there are too many inconsistent oddities for me to embrace it. I think it may someday be worth a revisit though, which is not something you can say about a genuinely bad film.
Mute is available exclusively on Netflix now and forever.