‘Mute’ is one of those films that’s great to look at, a challenge to follow along with, and hard to talk about after the fact. Those kinds of films exist, right? Well, if they didn’t before, they certainly do now – and even though, as stated, the movie can be a challenge to talk about, I’m going to give it a go anyhow.
First, let’s talk about the director of ‘Mute,’ Duncan Jones. Back in 2009, director Jones made his feature-film debut with ‘Moon,’ a ‘Castaway’ style sci-fi film he also co-wrote, about a solitary astronaut on a lunar mission who starts to go a bit bananas. It was well-received by critics (myself included) and was even nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best British Film. So far, so good for Jones.
Next up is the lure of the “mass market” Hollywood films, and Jones takes on the directorial duties first of 2011’s ‘Source Code‘ and the much more blockbuster-ish ‘Warcraft‘ in 2016. The latter film falters a bit at the US box office but does fairly well globally, becoming the highest-grossing video-game adaptation film of all time.
Jones gets enough “director swag” to call his own shot next, and he decides to double down on the sci-fi world-building, creating ‘Mute,’ a “spiritual sequel” set in the same universe as ‘Moon.’ Jones directs and co-writes this film as well. It is essentially his “dream project.” Fun fact: Jones is David Bowie’s son, and he dedicated ‘Mute’ to the memory of his parents – not that it’s entirely relevant to our discussion here, but still, good to know.
The film has a definitely mystery-thriller vibe to it, as the tale follows the story of Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a somewhat-practicing Amish man living in Berlin in the year 2050. Leo has been rendered mute by a childhood accident, and works as a bartender in a strip(-ish) club; he’s dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), but when she goes missing, his passion for her boils over into an obsessively-focused quest to find out what happened to her.
That’s the film’s story in a nutshell; the 2 hours and 6 minutes of actual movie time, however, weaves a very different cinematic narrative for the viewer. On the positive side, the film itself looks phenomenal. This is a truly visual extrapolation of our world today as it may very well look like 32 years from now: new technologies and new ideas, but not so foreign that you can’t recognize what humans have always been about: self-gratification, wealth, and power. The opening scene of the film takes place in our actual present day (give or take a few years), so the film is rooted in reality literally from the get-go, and it’s a credit to Duncan and his creative team for effectively bringing to life this very realistic look at the near-future.
It’s the plot, pacing, and the details of the story itself, sadly, where things start to fall apart. The slow, ambulatory pace worked effectively for ‘Moon’ because that style matched the aesthetic of the storyline: one character in a rather mundane situation, of course things are going to intentionally feel a bit lethargic. In ‘Mute,’ however, the landscape is vibrant and there’s a surprising amount of physical action – fight scenes, car crashes, even a bit of requisite sexy time – but the story seems to still plod along without really taking the viewer anywhere.
Not only is the script messy and the story haphazardly slow, the twists to the tale are eminently predictable, and that’s not a great thing for a sci-fi “thriller” type of film. I’ll admit, I didn’t see the big twist of ‘Moon’ when I first viewed the film (which I won’t spoil here, in case you haven’t seen it and are just super-slow to be getting around to it nine years later), but Duncan seems to have lost a bit of his plot-twist mojo somewhere between then and now, because everything here is pretty well telegraphed from the get-go.
Wasted, too, then, are the performances by actors with their “secondary characters,” even though the folks I’m about to list had arguably more screen time – and definitely more enjoyable screen time – than Skarsgård, who by no means did a bad job, but he had an uphill battle in playing a mute Amish bartender that somehow turned out to be a butt-kicking soldier of fortune. Justin Theroux puts in work as Duck, the “chilled out” sidekick of Cactus Bill – played by Paul Rudd, who has 100% become a national treasure in my book. These two do excellent work in their roles, with Rudd, in particular, embracing the chaos. You’ll see what Jones was trying to accomplish with these two characters and how the story arc shifted their paradigms – again, though, it’s unfortunately telegraphed way before it comes to life on-screen. A memorable cameo by Dominic Monaghan is utterly enjoyable, although completely unnecessary to the film’s narrative. So, too, is the movie’s flimsy connection to ‘Moon’ in the form of Sam Rockwell’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reprisal of Sam Bell. I know folks like to dig on another Netflix film, ‘The Cloverfield Paradox,’ and its tenuous connections to its bigger film franchise, but ‘Mute’ does a far worse job on this front, in my opinion.
When it’s all said and done, ‘Mute’ is going to be a quickly-forgettable film that looks great but lacks any real substance. Shallow characters, a muddled storyline, and haphazard action drag down the overall product, which is truly a shame, because I found myself wanting to be engaged all the way through from the opening scene to when the end credits started to roll.
The only real excitement left now is to speculate on what Jones will do for what he has said is a planned third film in this loosely-connected trilogy. One can only hope he sticks with the four-letter M-word title theme, then we can really have some guessing fun on what might come next. ‘Musk?’ ‘Meow?’ ‘Milk?’ ‘Mint?’ ‘Mork?’ The possibilities are endless.