Rating: 2 out of 5 (poor)
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Justin Theroux, Paul Rudd, Robert Sheehan, Seyneb Saleh
Synopsis: In a near future Berlin, mute Amish man Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) lives unwittingly alongside the city’s underworld until his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) disappears, sparking a desperate attempt to find his love.
Mute is best described as disappointingly confused. The film is addled by poor writing, mismatched performances and inconsistent visuals. The film does have potential, and is largely saved by the middle act and a great turn from Paul Rudd as Bill Cactus. Unfortunately, Mute is ensconced by a tedious first act and a protracted ending. Flashes of Duncan Jones’ brilliance flare in Mute’s immediate beginning, with Leo’s childhood creating intrigue while subtly establishing Neo-Berlin. The opening is followed by a boring twenty minutes of contrived romance and mystery exacerbated by poor audio that had me continuously adjusting my speakers.
For what is a science fiction thriller, Mute’s writing is poor. The build up of the central mystery in the film’s opening act is hampered by inaudible dialogue and the feigned chemistry between Leo and Naadirah. The few clues which string the tale along are indecipherable on the first viewing of Mute. The film’s revelations arrive as hollow tricks relying on past events shown through hazy flashbacks or not shown at all. Worse still is that some of Mute’s twists leave gaping holes in the plot’s logic. Many of Mute’s characters show a palpable effort by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones to write a verdant dystopia. Leo, Bill Cactus and his army buddy Duck (Justin Theroux) were opportunities to elaborate on this world and explore further themes due to their background. Taking Leo as the worst example, he is a disabled Amish man living in a futuristic metropolis. Yet Mute never explains why Leo has left the Amish community who shun modernity. Nor does Mute explore the theme of isolation which naturally surrounds Leo’s character, due to his disability and rejection of technology.
Bill Cactus and Duck are the strongest characters in Mute and are matched by great performances from Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux respectively. An enigma surrounds Cactus and Duck’s relationship as they hint at a prior relationship while they both served as U.S. army surgeons in Afghanistan. Throughout Mute their relationship veers between animosity, love and enmity as the darker sides of both characters are revealed. Some bold choices are made around Duck’s character but it leads to unfitting and unnecessary events in Mute’s final act. Rudd shows his more serious acting chops in Mute, at times carrying whole scenes by himself. Hopefully Rudd will pursue similar roles in the future. Alexander Skarsgärd is initially clunky as Leo, acting as a gentle giant but later on both Skarsgärd and Leo become more engrossing. Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame is unrecognisable as bartender and gigolo Luba who both aids and hampers Leo in his search.
Visually, Mute is haphazard in quality and lacks any real soul, appearing to be a discount version of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles but set in Europe. Netflix probably did not have the same resources and talent which crafted Blade Runner 2049’s aesthetic last year. However, it is startling how poor some of Mute’s effects and designs are given that Netflix wants to ‘disrupt’ the film industry as I have discussed here. From the robotic stripper to the flying taxi zipping across Berlin, parts of Mute were of the same quality as early episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who back in 2008. Mute fortunately does have its moments of originality where Duncan Jones’ vision shines through. The criminal syndicate that Leo encounters in a restaurant was one of the more absorbing concepts in the film. Clint Mansell, who worked on Moon’s score, joins Duncan Jones again to make an excellent soundtrack that seamlessly coalesces with Mute’s later acts.
Watching Mute again after my first viewing, I realised that it would have been better as a Netflix original series. The slower pace and ample run-time of a television show would have allowed the plot to really breathe while drawing out the uniqueness of Berlin. If Netflix did turn Mute into a series, the potential for something unique is there, such when a three-fingered gangster is reading his ‘Captain Berlin’ comic while a man is being tortured.In these moments, Mute was alive and alluring, projecting a world I did not want to leave.
Sadly, Mute is a slog whose better parts will not be deemed by many viewers as worth the effort of watching the rest of the film.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: