Mute is a strange, abrasive, and often repellent movie from Duncan Jones, director of the very interesting Moon (2009) and the superior Source Code (2011).
It follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute bartender who embarks on a knotty, painstaking search through a futuristic Berlin underworld to find his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). His path runs parallel to, and crosses with that of ‘Cactus’ Bill (Paul Rudd), an American military surgeon trying to escape the country with his daughter, and his fellow surgeon friend Duck (Justin Theroux). Jones’s film looks splendid; the noir stylishness complements fluid camera movements that result in a number of genuinely arresting sights. However, the shadow cast by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is inescapable, and Jones seems to revere the backgrounds so much that they are rarely interacted with.
Mute suffers from a terrible vagueness in its writing, and this begins to detract from the best of the character work. Paul Rudd’s performance is brilliant, playing absolutely against type as a nastily hot-tempered and embittered soul essentially lost in his surroundings. Justin Theroux also plays his (disturbing) part well, of the seemingly easy-going but hideously creepy Duck.
But, as good as Rudd and Theroux are, there is no excusing the incautious and perfunctory handling of Duck’s monstrous sexual proclivities, which (for no good diegetic reason) are treated with a totally inexplicable flippancy, and in the final third exist solely for shock value.
The film is also fundamentally unsatisfying as a narrative. It meanders, and as it approaches a story beat, it creates a diversion. This convolution of structure is the stuff of film noir, but even the loosest arrangement would not allow for the scene in which Leo and Cactus finally meet: it’s simply a careless piece of storytelling. But the biggest offence is a patronising flashback revealing a key piece of plot information, which a viewer could have worked out from context.
There are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to Moon, which are, tellingly, the most fascinating things in the film. Mute is, unfortunately, a substantial disappointment.
Image: Keith Bernstein / Netflix