Have you ever wondered what would happen if you tried to cram three movies into one? With “Mute,” Duncan Jones attempts to find out.
A passion project 16 years in the making, “Mute” appears to be the type of dexterously engaging film that we’ve come to expect from Jones, the director behind “Moon” and “Source Code.” The film falls flat, however, tripping over its own meandering plot, negligible character building and confused setting.
The movie details the story of Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), an aloof Amish bartender. As a child, Leo was involved in a motorboat accident in which his throat was slashed open, and he subsequently lost the ability to speak. In the present, Leo’s world is turned upside down when his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) goes missing and he is pulled deeper into the seedy underbelly of Berlin in his quest to find her. His search leads him deeper into the intrigue of Naadirah’s life, with no recurring links save for a pair of criminal surgeons, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux).
Yet Leo appears unaffected in his search for his beloved, going through the motions out of obligation, not devotion. His stoic expression goes beyond reticence or any limitations cast on him by his accident — it is perennially present, unchanged even in moments of anguish. His characterization is scant; most of what we know about him comes through the words of others. As a result, we are equally skeptical of Naadirah’s insistence that he is a “good man” and of Duck’s perception of him as a lumbering oaf.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Leo’s characterization is that he remains detached when he’s being affectionate and when he’s violently attacking someone. His interactions with supporting characters — who speak in an unnatural parody of colloquial speech in quasi-German-accented English — are stilted. We aren’t sympathetic toward Leo’s cause nor privy to his motives.
The characterization and dynamic of Cactus and Duck, defectors of the U.S. Army hiding out in Berlin, is perhaps the film’s brightest spot. The atmosphere between the two is relaxed and their camaraderie is evident. They illicitly work together as surgeons who quietly handle mob-related injuries. Paul Rudd shines as Cactus and is so inherently likable as a father to his young daughter (Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin) that we are surprised to see the depths of his cruelty and violence.
Duck is strangely unhinged, portrayed expertly by Justin Theroux, and the buildup is such that the ultimate reveal of his perversity feels in-character. As Leo’s story ties into Cactus and Duck’s, we get further insight into their involvement with Naadirah’s disappearance and the depths of their derangement.
Jones’ Berlin is a strange juxtaposition of grimy, old film noir, mundane, contemporary modernism and futuristic sci-fi. Jones attempts to set up an ultramodern city; the streets are slick with moisture that reflects the characteristic neon glow of the quintessentially futuristic city where cars zip across the horizon and robots dance at strip clubs — yet the CGI fails to impress.
It falls short in its rendering — not nearly impressive enough to warrant comparisons with “Blade Runner 2049.” Perhaps in an attempt to mimic the organic growth of a city, “Mute” endeavors to present both old and futuristic technology but only manages to create a slick city with jarring anachronistic elements, such as the print newspaper Leo reads over the rim of his coffee cup. Jones’ attempt at creating a sci-fi movie feels feeble — it lacks the worldbuilding to stand on its own. Instead, it can be uncomfortably hyphenated as a film noir-mobster crime-science fiction film featuring a mute Amish bartender.
Ultimately, the film’s climax is underwhelming, and its plot threads remain disconnected as the story draws to a close, like separate stories shoddily fashioned into one, which, considering its lengthy gestation, is probably what occurred over multiple drafts. Duncan Jones’ lackluster attempt is the latest in a string of overhyped disappointments from Netflix, joining the ranks of films such as “Bright” and “The Cloverfield Paradox.” “Mute” is not the daring sci-fi noir film it could have been — it is merely the idea of one.
“Mute” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Contact Maryam Khan at [email protected].