Complete creative control may not always be a good thing, and writer and director Duncan Jones’ “Mute” is proof.
Jones has been developing this passion project for over a decade, at one point mulling over releasing it as a graphic novel until Netflix greenlit his vision as a feature film. There was a lot of excitement going into this film, as his previous films “Moon” and “Source Code” were undeniably well-made science-fiction pictures, even if his third outing, “Warcraft,” was a bit of mess. Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be a fluke, as “Mute” is a dumpster fire of questionable
The story follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), a mute Amish bartender who must traverse the seedy streets of a futuristic Berlin to find his missing girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). His investigation brings him into contact with a pair of American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux), whose place in the mystery comes into focus as Leo dives deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.
One of the few saving graces of “Mute” is its world. For the most part, Jones and cinematographer Gary Shaw have created a gorgeous interpretation of future Berlin. Neon lights pulse through an ever-present rain to give an authentic noir film that’s definitely indebted to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”
Any other enjoyment to be found in “Mute” is through its cast. Skarsgard conveys so much without speaking, portraying a deep of level of pain, longing and kindness through just his eyes and body language. Paul Rudd is a hoot as Cactus, a character whose crass, slimy demeanor is delightfully different from the “nice guy” role we’ve seen him play in the past. His handlebar mustache alone is enough to recommend this role.
Even though she’s central to the plot, Naadirah is barely a character, robbing Seyneb Saleh of a larger chance to shine. In fact, none of the other actors play interesting characters, either.
The story, if you can even call it that, follows the same path. Twists and turns happen seemingly just because, and the interesting hook of a mystery proves to be nothing more for an excuse for Jones to put things he’s always wanted to see in a movie, in a movie.
It’s mind-boggling that ideas such as a robot strip club even got past the drawing board. Moreover, the sexual politics on display here are bizarre, to say the least. Sex is everywhere in Berlin, but the film never makes a real comment on it. There’s an attempt at homoeroticism with Cactus and Theroux’s character, Duck, constantly calling each other “babe” and “sweetie,” which doesn’t work and seems to have no place for either of those characters.
Duck represents a part of the film that is morally reprehensible — its depiction of pedophilia. His character’s desires towards children play no part in the plot whatsoever, seemingly just there to make the viewer uncomfortable. Worse yet, in the first half of the film it’s played for laughs, eventually being dropped.
“The Neon Demon” and “Lolita” proved there are tasteful ways to handle this subject matter, but “Mute” fumbles it to a comical degree.
None of this would really matter if the rest of the film was any good, but it’s not. As “Mute” crawls to the finish line through a slog of a detective tale, nothing of value has happened. The only thing “Mute” accomplishes is putting the future of similar vision-driven projects in jeopardy.
Running Time: 126 min