As is fitting for a film where the main character barely speaks, I don’t have a huge amount to say about Mute. The main thing you need to know is that it isn’t very good.
This is a shame because, as is the case with a lot of poor movies, there is an interesting idea at the heart of it. It’s modelled on the old gumshoe pictures of the forties but it’s set in a future world of neon and flying cars. Unfortunately though rather than serving as a smart tribute to other genre films it just feels heavily derivative. Like so many of the other big new movies released straight on to Netflix; Bright, The Discovery, Death Note, The Cloverfield Paradox, even The Meyerowitz Stories, with better writing and directing it could have been much more. Interestingly Mute comes from a director I rate, Duncan Jones (once known as Zowie Bowie) but I am coming to the sad conclusion that perhaps his stunning debut was a one off.
Jones’ first film was the highly acclaimed and much rewarded Sci-Fi thinker Moon. I, like many, loved that movie. Centring around an astronaut on a solo lunar mission, it was exciting, intriguing, surprising and emotionally engaging. A lot of the science fiction that aims to tackle big ideas can be confusing and sometimes even a little obtuse. Intellectually stimulating people is about making them think not necessarily about leaving them thinking and films like Solaris, Event Horizon, Sunshine, Interstellar and 2001 all left things frustratingly unanswered. The best of these though, Silent Running, Inception, Arrival and Moon, know that you can be clever and self contained.
Duncan Jones followed Moon with Source Code which was good but a little more pedestrian and then came Warcraft, based on the computer game. Warcraft wasn’t very good. I assumed this was another case of an innovative director being stifled by the Hollywood Blockbuster machine. See also Gareth Edwards (Monsters was superb, Godzilla wasn’t) and Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed was smart, Jurassic World wasn’t). Mute is a smaller film though and it’s still underwritten with poor character development and an uninspiring plot. The tagline on the poster is ‘He Doesn’t Need Words’ but he definitely needed a better script.
The story follows Alexander Skarsgård’s Leo, an Amish man with severe damage to his voice box that his fundamentalist mother failed to fix with prayer when he was a child. The character is a bag of contradictions. He prefers to keep himself to himself and closely observes his religion but works in a strip bar and seems very quick to turn to brutal violence. I’m sure he is playing it as directed but Skarsgård shows also none of the command or confidence he’s demonstrated in other roles. Inclined as he is to hit people with things he just seems a little pathetic. It is not particularly enjoyable joining him on his quest to find his girlfriend. More verbose but no more fun is Paul Rudd as an equally changeable mafia surgeon looking for papers to get him and his young daughter back to the US. Then there is Justin Theroux’s Duck (his name not his species) whose characterisation is just distasteful.
The future setting is pretty but there is nothing original here either. I don’t know why they don’t just say that all films and TV shows set sometime toward the middle of this century are part of the same world as Blade Runner. Shared movie universes are all the thing now (this is clearly happening in the same reality as Moon) so if they stated that this, Ghost in the Shell, Zero Theorem and Altered Carbon were all part of the world of Ridley Scott’s replicants then they wouldn’t be criticised poorly for the comparisons. Also, why do all dystopian futures have to be sexist? There are other ways of showing moral decay than having all the women in S&M gear.
My advice would be to pass this by. When you’re on Netflix just keep scrolling. My hope is that Duncan Jones will again show the promise of his first film. He’s no doubt had a bad year, we all felt the loss following his father’s death in January 2017. Based on Mute though, I fear he’s no longer the exciting director I initially thought he was.