In numerous interviews discussing Mute, Duncan Jones has admitted that his latest film is somewhat of a passion project that has been in development hell for years. However, it’s finally arrived, but on a smaller screen than he might have imagined with Netflix attaining the rights. Coming from the man who brought us the minor-key masterpiece that is 2009’s Moon, expectations were high that Mute would follow in that film’s innovative and engaging footsteps. Unfortunately, that anticipation has not been met: Mute is 2018’s first major disappointment.
It’s a huge shame because the set-up is an intriguing concept. Mute revolves around a voiceless bartender, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) who, following the disappearance of his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), searches far and wide across a futuristic Berlin to find her. This investigation leads him to two unusual and suspicious American surgeons, “Cactus” Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), whose ambitions are to procure the means to emigrate out of Berlin and return to their home country.
Unfortunately, whilst promising, this narrative foundation leads to nothing original or emotionally stimulating. First and foremost, Jones fails to establish a cohesive tone across both plotlines, leaving one feeling perplexed throughout: it’s as though Jones, along with co-writer Michael Robert Johnson, stitched two entirely different films together and hoped for the best. Leo’s missing persons chase tries to take itself seriously, but it is ineffectively supplemented by a set of strange segues into the quirky yet sinister world of Bill and Duck. These sections try to inject some humour into the proceedings, a creative decision clearly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s eccentrically comic sci-fi film Brazil. But rather than alleviate any intensity, it spawns an alienating experience that had me suspecting a re-write during the film’s eventual translation to the screen.
Sadly, the casting doesn’t improve matters. Rudd is a fantastic performer, whose charm brought the character of Scott Lang/Ant-Man to jovial life in the eponymous Marvel movie. But this appeal is unsuccessfully implemented here, in an individual who is far from charismatic: Bill is cut from a menacing cloth and Rudd struggles to render this.
Skarsgård has little luck either as the mute protagonist. The role of Leo calls for an accentuated corporeality and a sentimental complexion, and it’s only the latter that Skarsgård delivers. That’s not to say that he isn’t imposing. But without the power of speech, one would hope that Skarsgård would offer some complexity or depth to his character in his physical interactions with the world and its inhabitants. Instead, he emanates a stoic aura that isn’t so accessible in terms of relatability: with an actor such as Liam Neeson, this could have been the role of a lifetime.
It must be said that the world is gorgeous and DOP Gary Shaw captures it in all its neon glory. I’m a sucker for futuristic visuals: from Metropolis to Blade Runner and even in last year’s Ghost in the Shell, these films’ establishing shots are a thing to behold and with Mute it is no different. It is certainly derivative of Ridley Scott’s masterful vision. But Jones has admitted this and adds enough of his own flair to the film that its setting always feels fresh and enchanting. Look out for some subtle, if slightly unnecessary references to Jones’ aforementioned cerebral sci-fi flick Moon, amidst the skyscrapers and alleyways of Mute’s cityscape.
It’s just all the more frustrating that the characters that populate this city are uninteresting, their stories unimaginative. What could have been a dystopian Prisoners, ends up feeling more like a Gilliam-lite showcase that strains to find any tonal consistency. Mute is an attractive painting for sure, but the pastels that are stroked across the canvas just don’t meld together, creating a messy final product that doesn’t do justice to the artistic mind that inspired it. Fingers crossed that Jones’ next cinematic endeavour isn’t lying dormant in the pipeline for so long: the director deserves a big break, irrespective of Mute’s failings.