Writer-director Duncan Jones sadly seems to be joining the ranks of one-hit wonders like Neill Blomkamp, Richard Kelly, and Josh Trank, all of whom burst onto the scene with strong debuts, were quickly declared the new saviors of blockbuster genre entertainment, and then crashed and burned on all their subsequent attempts to live up to the hype.
Jones directed the acclaimed 2009 indie Moon, which many hailed as an instant sci-fi classic. He followed it up in 2011 with Source Code, a middle-of-the-road effort that seemed mostly like a necessary step to get past the Curse of the Sophomore Slump. But then came the dismal 2016 video game adaptation Warcraft (we’ve got a whole seven-part recap devoted to just how bad it is). And with his 2018 Netflix release Mute, I’m sorry to say that Moon is looking more and more like a fluke that belongs in the same company as Donnie Darko and District 9 and Chronicle.
In brings me no joy to report this, because Mute was obviously a highly personal passion project for Jones. He first co-wrote the script back in 2002, and considered making the film as his follow-up to Moon, and continued to talk up the project while doing press for Source Code and Warcraft. And Jones always seemed to be well-aware of how non-commercial the premise is; this clearly isn’t something he made for a quick buck. And when he finally got to make the film thanks to Netflix, he was dealing with a lot in his life: the critical trashing of Warcraft, the birth of his son, and the deaths of both his father David Bowie and his childhood nanny Marion Skene (the film is dedicated to both of them). Jones freely admitted in interviews that Mute was an “artistic way of dealing with my own shit.”
While I can respect the 16-year struggle to get this movie made, and the use of creative self-expression to grapple with personal issues, neither has resulted in a film worth watching. Mute is a dud. It’s a sluggish story that takes forever to get anywhere, and once you reach the destination, you realize it wasn’t worth the journey.
The movie is a futuristic film noir that takes place in 2052 Berlin, and focuses on Amish bartender Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), who as a child had his voice box severed by a tragic motorboat accident (do the Amish even own motorboats?). His mother refused to allow the doctors to operate on her son, leaving it up to the Lord to heal him, and rendering him forever unable to talk.
30 years later, the German government has appealed to the Amish to return home to the fatherland, where Leo ends up working in a seedy nightclub that provides scantily clad women and even pole-dancing sex robots as entertainment. Leo is of course reticent to use any sort of technology, and is irked when his waitress girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) gifts him a smartphone for his birthday. And this smartphone is presented as something of an antiquated model; other phones in use in 2052 take the form of tiny pendants and (apparently) subdermal implants that leave people abruptly yelling to the empty air whenever they get a call.
Leo uses a sketchpad to communicate with others, and also to indulge his artistic side. He shows Naadirah sketches of a big four-poster bed he’s building for them, then takes her down to his secret woodworking studio where he’s already carved up the bedposts, complete with ornate dolphin designs. But after a passionate night together, he wakes up to discover she’s gone, and he suspects she may have fled the city.
And then a parallel and more lively plot ensues, involving two former military doctors named Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Donald “Duck” Teddington (Justin Theoux). Duncan Jones has made no secret of the fact that Cactus Bill and Duck were based on Trapper John and Hawkeye from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, which explains why Rudd is sporting a formidable handlebar mustache to rival Elliot Gould’s, and why they’re both total assholes to each other and everyone they meet.
Cactus Bill and Duck are working for the mobster types who run Leo’s bar as well as a brothel down the street. In Cactus’s basement, the two perform surgeries and remove bullets with no questions asked, and even provide the occasional torture services. Duck has an above-board job designing bionic limb replacements for kids, while Cactus is an AWOL fugitive from the US Army, which is still fighting in Afghanistan fifty years on. Cactus is working on getting fake IDs to allow himself and his daughter Josie to flee Berlin and start a new life, but there’s one small problem: his ex-wife is offering big money to corrupt military police to arrest Bill so she can get her daughter back.
As the film progresses, we can see why: Cactus, in addition to being a short-tempered prick, also turns out to be a contender for Worst Father of the Year when he brings Josie to all sort of sleazy establishments, even letting the sex workers watch her when he can’t find a sitter.
Meanwhile, Leo starts searching in earnest for Naadirah, all the while getting cryptic text messages on his phone from her number. And the “missing girl” plot is a pretty standard film noir plot device and has made for interesting films in the past, but here, Leo’s search isn’t the least bit inspired or clever. Prior to her disappearance, Naadirah uses Leo’s sketchbook to write down a name and address, and it’s not until several scenes later that Leo gets the bright idea to rub charcoal across the following page to see what she wrote.
This address leads him to the apartment of Oswald (Dominic Monaghan), who answers the door dressed in a geisha outfit. Also, he has a couple of sex robots in his bed. Aside from those bizarre visuals, there’s not much reason to mention this scene, because it only leads to a murky subplot that never amounts to anything important.
Eventually, Leo uses a food kiosk to input Naadirah’s phone number and find out where she lives—it seems that in the future, delivery services employ drones that can zero in on your phone’s exact location to bring food directly to you—but all this establishes is that Leo somehow didn’t know where the supposed love of his life actually lives.
Once he gets to her apartment, there’s more flashy future tech where the front door of Naadirah’s refrigerator doubles as a list of phone contacts. Leo dials the entry for “Mama”, but since he can’t speak, he can’t talk to Naadirah’s mother about what happened. Instead, he has to find out where she lives, and to accomplish this, he heads to the public library and scans through evidently hundreds of Berlin phone books to find her address. I realize he’s a luddite and all, but couldn’t he just do a reverse phone number lookup on the internet, or whatever it’s called in 2052? And again, how does he not know where his girlfriend’s mother lives, even though she’s in the same city as both of them?
You know how occasionally someone will say of a particular actor or actress, “I could watch him/her read the phone book for two hours”? That’s pretty much what we get here, with extended scenes of Skarsgård scanning through stacks of telephone directories until he finds the right address.
He goes to meet Naadirah’s mother, who finally reveals the shocking truth: Naadirah used to be married to Cactus Bill, and Josie is Naadirah’s daughter. But don’t feel bad if you don’t get this right away; Naadirah’s mother can’t speak English, so this is explained via her holding her belly to indicate pregnancy and yelling, “Cack-toose! Cack-toose!” Somehow, this triggers Leo to have a flashback to something he didn’t witness: Cactus Bill staking out Leo’s apartment, and breaking in to dose both Leo and Naadirah with tranquilizers, and kidnapping Naadirah in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, Cactus Bill discovers his pal Duck is actually a pedophile who’s been secretly making creepy recordings of his young female patients. In response, Cactus smacks Duck around and tells him to stay away from his daughter. Then a moment later, Bill gets a call on his unseen phone and learns that his papers and fake IDs are ready down at the nightclub, and all that pedo business is forgotten as the two head out for a celebratory burger.
After the meal, Duck reveals that he’s the one who’s been texting Leo with those cryptic messages, apparently just to mess with the guy’s head. In response, Cactus smacks Duck around once again, and Duck, seemingly tired of the constant abuse, texts a revenge-minded Leo that he can find Cactus Bill at the nightclub. Leo grabs one of those massive wooden dolphin bedposts and uses it to go on a rampage, bashing his way through every goon at his old workplace, where he’s able to make off with Cactus’s papers and also learn his home address.
Leo makes his way to Cactus Bill’s house, where Cactus casually hands Leo the keys to a room where he discovers Naadirah’s body wrapped up in a tarp. Then comes a flashback from the POV of the murdered woman, where Cactus says he has to kill Naadirah because she’s trying to get him arrested and take him away from his daughter.
Cactus and Leo get into a short struggle, which ends when Leo overpowers him and Cactus gets a huge knife gruesomely shoved into his throat. Duck later shows up and finds Bill still alive and gurgling on his own blood, but refuses to take Cactus to a hospital because it would draw too much attention from the cops. Then Duck twists the metaphorical knife by going upstairs and grabbing Josie, and a dying Cactus can only helplessly watch on a baby monitor as a potential molester takes possession of his daughter.
Duck then knocks out Leo and brings him to his clinic, where in a graphic surgery scene, he installs a bionic voice box into Leo’s throat. You’d think this would be a pretty expensive and involved procedure, and yet it seems Duck is only doing this so Leo can finally speak and say in his own voice that he’s sorry for killing Cactus and leaving Josie without a father. Even though it’s Duck’s meddling that led to Leo tracking down and killing Cactus in the first place.
Duck brings Leo to a bridge, intending to toss him into a river, but Leo turns the tables by holding his breath, leaping into the water, and dragging Duck down with him. Duck, unlike his namesake, isn’t so good with water and eventually drowns. Leo swims to the surface, and in trying to warn Josie away from the edge of the bridge, he suddenly discovers he can talk. No longer mute, Leo collects Josie and promises to bring her to her grandmother, and the movie ends with them bonding over their shared love of drawing.
Admittedly, a lot was left out of the above synopsis. There are several characters and convoluted subplots that end up having no real impact on the story and only serve to make the film more drawn out and harder to follow. A movie that takes a couple of viewings to fully comprehend isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Mute seems to actively defy attempts to understand it. And once you finally do grasp everything that’s going on, you’ll only be left frustrated by the lost mental energy spent deciphering what’s essentially a simple story of a violent custody dispute between a divorced couple, with the wife’s new boyfriend caught in the middle. Which combined with the gruesome and graphic violence of the final act make for quite an unpleasant viewing experience.
But it’s certainly an impressive visual effort, as Jones’ concept of 2052 Berlin evokes Blade Runner on a much smaller budget. The film features strong performances on the part of Justin Theroux and especially Paul Rudd, who these days is viewed as the Ultimate Hollywood Nice Guy, but based on Mute should be thinking about signing up for more villainous roles in the future.
But as Leo, Skarsgård wears two expressions: confusion and gloom. Compared to the mute main character of the previous year’s The Shape of Water, who was able to get across myriad emotions without any dialogue, Leo’s a dull cypher. Also, can anyone explain the deal with him standing alone in his apartment and drinking giant mugs of water? This happens no less than three times in the movie.
Duncan Jones originally wanted this to be his follow-up to Moon, and in fact, the film serves as a pseudo-sequel taking place in the same universe as Moon; we get some small references to Lunar Industries, and a brief shot of a TV showing that the Sam Bell clones (Sam Rockwell) all made it home from the Moon and are testifying at a hearing. But this movie is to Moon as 1998’s Soldier is to Blade Runner: Nominally in the same continuity, but not in any way that matters to the plot. Jones has said he has another “sidequel” in mind already, which would be another mostly unrelated story involving two British sisters. But after Mute, is anyone interested in seeing him finish out this trilogy?
This movie was only made thanks to Netflix, and while I continue to be grateful that the company is willing to throw insane amounts of money at every auteur and top-name producer in its continuing efforts to shake the image of “direct to streaming” movies as substandard product, Mute shows the flaws in that strategy. This film never would have been made by a traditional movie studio, and I think there’s a very good reason for that.