MUTE: A Dour Disappointment From Duncan Jones & Netflix
Mute is riddled with unoriginal elements, from the Blade Runner inspired visuals to the generic missing persons story, to the underdeveloped characters; it is a misfire on all accounts.
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed science-fiction films of the past decade is Duncan Jones’ feature debut, Moon. The understated indie starring Sam Rockwell as a man alone (or is he?) on a spaceship on the far side of the moon showed that you don’t need flashy special effects or crazy action set pieces to make good sci-fi; all you need is a great story and compelling characters and you can sell even the most out-there of concepts to the audience. (To be fair, it also helps to have someone as remarkable as Rockwell play at least one of said characters).
Moon cemented Jones as a filmmaker to watch and gave him goodwill to spare with audiences who still hold that film in high regard, myself included. That’s what makes Mute all the more depressing. Jones’ fourth feature – following the well-received Source Code and the, well, less well-received Warcraft – is a paint-by-numbers futuristic thriller with next to nothing in common with his imaginative debut. That it was released on Netflix only a few weeks after The Cloverfield Paradox made its much-hyped but ultimately underwhelming debut does not bode well for the streaming service, which so far seems to be struggling to parlay its success with original television series into feature films.
Does being released via Netflix now mean the same kiss of death as direct-to-DVD did not too long ago? Based on the evidence provided by Mute, I’m starting to think the answer might be yes.
What If Blade Runner Was Boring?
A childhood accident left Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) mute; his Amish family refused the surgery that could have saved his ability to speak. Now, he works as a bartender in a strip club where he is in love with a waitress named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), whose honor he is a bit too willing to defend with his fists. (He also carves wood. Because, you know, he’s Amish.) But Naadirah has a problematic past and a need for cash – and soon, she disappears. Leo sets out to track her down with only a photo of her to point at and a notepad to write on. His journey takes him deep into the Berlin underworld, where he encounters two oddball American surgeons named Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) who run an underground clinic. They and the various mobsters they are tangled up with seem to be connected to Naadirah’s disappearance – but how?
I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but trust me when I say that literally nothing about Mute works. I have seen some critics cite the visuals as the film’s sole redeeming element, but I was even underwhelmed by those, mostly because even though they were pleasant enough to look at, they were terribly unoriginal. It seems that every new science-fiction property out there, particularly those being released via Netflix (such as Altered Carbon), just copies the iconic futuristic noir landscape of the original Blade Runner, right down to the questionable exploitation of sex workers. Yes, neon lights shining through the rain-soaked darkness will always look pretty awesome, but not nearly awesome enough to distract audiences from your story if it is a total disaster.
One of the things that irked me most about Mute was that apart from a few token Germans (who were naturally subjected to tasteless Nazi jokes by the American characters), you could barely even tell the film was set in Berlin. Compare that to last year’s Atomic Blonde; yes, it did indeed have the advantage of building off of the city’s history instead of its prospective future, but it also made the German capital as vibrant and lively a character and as crucial to the film’s story as any of the human beings walking around in it.
When you set your story in such a unique locale as Berlin, with such a colorful and disturbing history, you should make the most of it. Whereas if I had put the film on mute (ironic, yes), I wouldn’t have even been able to tell where it was supposed to be. The fact that Berlin played such an important role in the career of Jones’ father, the legendary David Bowie, who this film is dedicated to, is not lost on me; perhaps that was one reason why he chose to set his film there. But you would think Jones, in particular, would be able to pay a more interesting tribute to Berlin, the city that inspired his father to record some of the best music of his career. That he does not is one of the many major problems with this movie.
We Could Be Heroes…Or Not
The biggest problem with Mute, however, is that the story is just terrible, a generic missing persons thriller where you don’t care about any of the persons involved. Skarsgård might be fresh off an award-winning turn in the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, but the handsome Swedish actor is shockingly lacking here. The way Skarsgård plays mute – in contrast to the brilliant, fiery performance of Sally Hawkins in Oscar frontrunner The Shape of Water – is dull, dim-witted, and completely lacking in charisma. He’s also ridiculously violent.
Watching Mute, one feels as though one is watching a particularly brutish child in inexplicable Amish suspenders punch his way through a city that is apparently Berlin. It’s also hard to be entirely sure what the point of making him mute was, apart from just making it more annoyingly difficult to watch him try to track down Naadirah.
Rudd and Theroux, meanwhile, are initially presented as eccentric comic relief, except that they aren’t funny – especially when the icky subplot revealing Theroux’s character as a pedophile who may or may not have designs on Cactus Bill’s young daughter raises its ugly head. Paul Rudd has one of the most inherently likable screen presences in movies; as a villain with a darkly comic side, he should have been perfect. But his performance falls entirely flat, the actor getting all tripped up in the bizarre script by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson (Sherlock Holmes, Pompeii) and mostly just shouting his lines, as though trying to create as much of a contrast to Skarsgård as possible. The fact that the closest thing to a main female character in the film, Naadirah, is barely even given a chance to establish herself before she’s essentially fridged for the sake of Leo’s development is just the icing on the top of this distasteful cake.
Original science-fiction should be just that: original. Unfortunately, almost everything about Mute is generic and boring; the few elements that aren’t cribbed from earlier, better films just don’t work. It’s a particularly disappointing misfire from the man that gave us the low-key masterpiece of Moon, and yet another nail in the coffin of Netflix as a destination for quality original films.
What do you think? With these recent disappointments, does Netflix sound like it is becoming the straight-to-DVD of the streaming generation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mute is available for streaming on Netflix in the U.S. and the UK as of February 23, 2018. You can find more international release dates here.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.