The tagline for Mute is “he doesn’t need words”. Honestly, the same can’t be said for the audience watching Duncan Jones’ latest picture.
Mute is either surprising or possibly to be expected, depending on where you stand on Jones as a filmmaker. Removing the interesting fact that he’s the son of David Bowie, Jones comes across as a nice guy of cinema. He’s active on social media and welcoming and friendly to his audience, often sharing storyboards and nuggets of detail about his upcoming movies. Yet he’s been on something of a downward curve over the past couple of years. Warcraft, his take on the world-renowned MMORPG World of Warcraft, was a painfully dull mess of an adaptation. Mute takes him back to his original screenplay roots but, sadly, said dullness appears to have followed him from the unsuccessful swords and sorcery blockbuster.
There is almost certainly a reason why filmmakers don’t traditionally set movies around protagonists who don’t talk, and Mute exemplifies that singular problem. Alexander Skarsgard is Leo, a bartender in a ‘future-punk’ Berlin who also happens to be mute following a boating accident as a child, falls in love with Naadirah, an exotic young woman who works at the same club. When she disappears, so begins a hunt across the skyscraper-filled metropolis by Leo to track her down, facing a range of eccentrics, weirdos, gangsters (such as Paul Rudd’s Cactus Bill) and paedophiles (his brother Duck, played by Justin Theroux) along the way. Such a synopsis makes Mute sound, however, much more engaging than Jones’ meandering, listless and unformed script delivers in reality. From early on, Mute doesn’t seem to have any idea of its own identity.
Ostensibly, Mute slips neatly into the current trend in which ‘future-punk’ or ‘cyber-punk’ worlds are moving to the forefront of modern science-fiction storytelling. Blade Runner has remained revolutionary since 1982 and was undoubtedly ahead of its time, given just how indebted many filmmakers and writers have been since Ridley Scott adapted Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ to his picture. In just the last twelve months, we’ve had Blade Runner’s sequel from Denis Villeneuve, episodes of Black Mirror which tap a similar aesthetic, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (adapting his short stories into an anthology series), Altered Carbon, and now Mute. Sci-fi storytelling seems to be currently obsessed with a future devoid of morality, devoid of hope, devoid of *humanity*. It no doubt speaks to our mindset as particularly a Western society, given how heavily science-fiction has always reflected the cultural and sociological mood of its age.
Many of those stories above are directly about questioning what humanity *is*. Some do it better than others. Mute, unexpectedly, is about children. Jones starts with childhood trauma, continues with childhood abuse, and contrasts the pain of adulthood alongside the hope and innocence of children growing up in a future metropolis driven by exploitation. Those themes are writ large and characterised in Leo, who was permanently affected by trauma that has clouded his entire life, restricted his emotions. Skarsgard, not exactly the most powerfully emotive of actors, fits such a role in the same sense Scarlett Johannson fits roles such as Ghost in the Shell or Under the Skin; beautiful people with a sense of alien remoteness, questioning their central humanity. Leo struggles to emote until he has to, until everything literally by the end comes full circle.
The problem is that Mute can never entirely be driven *by* Skarsgard’s performance. Had the entire film been silent, and had Jones cast an actor with a deeper level of emotive skill, the picture may well have been powerful in its absence of sound. What happens is that Leo often becomes passive, dressed almost like a traumatised refugee who just stepped out of a Nazi concentration camp, one of numerous touches in which Jones seems to be trying to offset his futuristic landscape with iconoclastic touches of West German lingering aesthetics, such as Leo driving an old German car. Skarsgard has to rely on others to help carry his performance and often it forces Jones to take focus and attention away from Leo’s noir-style, Rick Deckard-esque hunt for the mysterious femme fatale, and place it on two very misjudged characters.
Cactus Bill and Duck feel, constantly, like they’ve walked out of a stray Quentin Tarantino film, perhaps indeed one of his rejected, half-written scripts. Theroux feels a bit limp in a thoroughly unpleasant role, the script never truly exposing him as the monster he is, but Rudd does what he can with Bill’s conflicted position as both a vicious underworld gangster and father to a child he’s terribly afraid will be exploited by his deviant brother. Jones spends a *lot* of time following these two around, chewing the fat with them, and it becomes just aimless, their vicious, profane dialogue perhaps intentionally marking them out as a contradiction to Leo’s silence, but they simply grate from start to finish. They are characters frankly written better in different movies by filmmakers with a stronger grasp on who they are and where they fit.
Originally, the role of Bill was earmarked for Sam Rockwell, who does cameo as Jones slyly ties Mute canonically into the universe of his 2009 film Moon, which Rockwell of course headlined. Jones has described Mute as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to the much better received Moon but here establishes they exist in the same inter-connected universe, if even only loosely. That’s not an aspect that jars but it does further underscore how Jones seems to have lately lost the edge and focus he displayed in Moon, or indeed his best film to date, Source Code. Mute feels like a world we have seen in a hundred other movies/TV shows/books, with ideas that could have been presented in an original context but get lost in the aimless morass of script and plotting, even when Jones provides some neat visuals. Yet, strangely, none of it looks half as well-realised as Altered Carbon.
Mute, therefore, fits the worrying trend that Netflix’s new revolution of premiering what would previously have been mid-budget cinematic releases is not necessarily a great step forward. The Cloverfield Paradox was released to much greater fanfare several weeks ago and while viewing figures have been good, critical response has been appalling. Critics have also, in broad terms, savaged Mute, and perhaps even more so. Everyone wanted Mute to be the comeback for Jones after his miscalculated last picture, and given how long it had been in the pipeline, fitting the same aesthetic as Moon in many respects, the omens for a long time were good. In the end, it further suggests Netflix is becoming the new ‘straight to DVD’ equivalent for the modern age – a dumping ground for pictures that studios aren’t confident they’ll make any money on, which they suspect could well be dead on arrival.
Thankfully, for UK viewers who are being denied a cinematic release, Alex Garland’s Annihilation looks by all accounts to buck that trend. Mute, sadly, feels ill-conceived, derivative, badly constructed and limp from the outset. Duncan Jones, one hopes, will recover from yet another misfire, as he’s a talented filmmaker, but for now maybe it’s time someone put the stabilisers back on for a while.