I’ve watched Mute twice. The first time, Duncan Jones’s latest seemed so incoherent, so ugly, so inexplicable that I couldn’t believe just how thoroughly bad it was. Then I saw Jones retweeting praise from fans, and subtly throwing shade on the critics who helped give his passion project a painful 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, critics had heralded his inventive and strange debut Moon and cheered for his first studio spin Source Code. But among us, there was an intense disappointment that his early talents felt squandered in Warcraft, then completely absent in Mute. Still, I wondered if we were too harsh. I remembered the title card at the end that dedicated the movie to his parents (RIP Bowie), and I felt compelled to give Mute a second chance. It didn’t help.
Jones has been talking about making Mute for years, and has called it a “spiritual sequel” to Moon. And yes, there is a brief, totally irrelevant scene in this movie that ties it explicitly to Sam Bell’s harrowing journey of self-discovery. But in no other way does Mute feel related. Rather than a lean story that masterfully unfolds its mystery piece by piece, Jones tosses audiences into a murky and mundane mystery in a Blade Runner-styled Berlin, all dark corners and neon lights. Temptation and danger lurk around every corner. But at the center of this story is a simple man.
Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is mute, naive, and Amish. Despite living in the middle of a hi-tech society where drones deliver take-out and fuck-bots are a terrifying reality (with long barbed dongs), he is a bartender who carves wood in his spare time. It’s a blunt and uninspired take on the “fish out of water” narrative and does nothing to enhance this story. Yes, Leo is challenged because he doesn’t understand the tech around him, and can’t speak, which is an obstacle to voice-activated tech. But neither of these elements makes much of a difference to the actual plot, as he deftly figures out everything from cars to phones to how to hack a vending machine for information. Worse, this role wastes Skarsgård’s talents and charm casting him as a nice, silent naif.
In True Blood he sizzled with menace and sensuality. In War On Everyone he was savage with a punch or a punchline. In Mute, Skarsgård’s muscular frame is used to intimidate those who get in his way as he plunges through the criminal underground in search of his missing girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh). But robbed of his voice, this strapping Swedish stud is working at a huge disadvantage. And a script that relies on Leo scribbling notes or gazing plaintively does little to make up for it. But even this—the literally strong silent type—is a tired device that feels best left to film school. Sure, Drive made it work. But more often than not, snatching away your protagonist’s ability to communicate makes for a flat film, as it does here. We’re robbed of the traditional means of understanding the hero, and given weak substitutions instead. Worse still, it’s not only Leo that Mute follows, which makes following his investigation all the more a chore.
Paul Rudd pops up with a ghastly mustache and a bad attitude, playing Cactus Bill, an American soldier who’s working as a mob doctor to Berlin’s kingpin. Where Leo is quiet and brooding, Bill is loud and macho. They are obvious opposites, yet both weave around the small world of Berlin’s pimps, perverts, and pedophiles. Because of the dizzying way the film is cut, you might get distracted, and wonder how their two storylines will relate. Leo is knocking on doors and smashing skulls to find his vanished lady love, while Bill is stitching up gangsters and greasing palms to get out of Berlin with his young daughter. But the reveal isn’t surprising, and far from satisfying. And then things get really, really gross and bleak. But to explain more would mean major third act spoilers.
I will say this. Watching the film a second time, I could see all the work and thought Jones put into realizing this world. He wanted to create a cacophony of influences and cultures that all collide in spectacular and bizarre ways in nightclubs, brothels, and bowling alleys. But Mute is an instance where creative freedom isn’t what was best for the project. Jones has shown himself to be a better storyteller than this overwritten bramble of a narrative reveals. He needed to kill his darlings to whip this into more than a mess of possibly interesting ideas, and into a cohesive, compelling narrative. As it is, Mute shows a lot of ambition, yet little sophistication. And most astounding of all, it’s a passion project that feels utterly passionless.
Love is the driving force behind both Leo and Bill’s journeys. But in the ruthlessly swift scenes of Leo and his girlfriend together don’t ground that kind of love, or show that sense of passion. So his story is a lifeless trudge after not-so-much a character as a McGuffin with blue hair and tits. To Rudd’s credit, he brings fire to his rowdy single-dad, which sells his storyline. And an abrasive edge to his signature smirking charm helps. But overall Mute feels like a dream: strange, amorphous, emotionally remote, and senseless.