Mute review

Duncan Jones‘ passion project, the sci-fi film Mute, has finally arrived on Netflix – but was it worth the wait?

Our Mute review answers that question below.

Mute Paul Rudd

Mute

At long last, Duncan Jones’ highly-anticipated Mute has arrived. The Moon and Source Code filmmaker has struggled to bring his dream project to the screen for over 12 years now, and the good folks at Netflix were nice enough to help make that dream a reality.

Mute is yet another film in the recent Blade Runner revival trend that seems to be booming in sci-fi. Blade Runner 2049 kept the franchise going with a bleak, beautiful tone poem (that audiences mostly avoided). Netflix’s Altered Carbon created a trippy science fiction series that seemed to be set within the same neon-lit, constantly-raining Blade Runner universe. Now Mute brings it all home, with another gorgeous-yet-bleak future-scape. Neon lights buzz, streets are constantly wet, and tech is used in soul-crushing ways. In Mute, the future is even more depressing than the present.

Jones’ considerable skill with cinematic language cannot be denied. He fills every inch of every frame with riveting, hypnotic detail here. The world of Mute feels alive, and more than that, it feels lived-in. Netflix’s recent Altered Carbon had a far-too-synthetic vibe at times. Yes, it looked great, but almost nothing seemed solid, or tangible. It came across as a world concocted by a very talented computer artist. Mute, in contrast, is humming with life. There are wide-open shots of skylines cluttered with glimmering, shimmering neon-lit structures, and every single one looks real. It’s a feast for the eyes.

Sadly, it’s not enough. There’s nothing I wanted Mute to be more than a return to form for Jones. The filmmaker released the one-two-punch of Moon and Source Code, two of the best science fiction films in recent memory. He stumbled slightly with Warcraft, a charmingly weird but ultimately clunky adaptation of the popular game series. Warcraft was the biggest film Jones had made to date, and there was hope a return to a smaller sci-fi story like Mute would rekindle his cinematic magic.

But that’s not the case. Instead, Mute is a disjointed, nihilistic trip through two distinct storylines that have almost nothing to do with each other – save for the fact that they inhabit the same world. Slowly, these storylines do come together, but never in a convincing or satisfying way. The end result is a frustrating film – one loaded with potential, but lacking distinction.

mute movie

A Hollow Feeling

Here’s the thing about Mute: I’m not entirely sure which of its two storylines should be considered “main.” Both take up almost the same amount of time, yet neither manages to hold one’s interest.

One story focuses on tall, imposing, and yes, mute, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård). Leo is a bartender somewhere in futuristic Berlin, and he spends his days doting on his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). An accident in his youth has left Leo without a voice, but he still manages to be expressive, thanks to Skarsgård’s performance. The actor lurches through the film, his shoulders slumped, his eyes weary. This is a performance that relies on posture and long, somber looks, and Skarsgård is quite good in the part.

Leo’s world turns upside down when Naadirah vanishes. Her disappearance transforms Leo into something of an amateur detective, and he stalks through the crowded streets on a mission to find his lost love. That mission takes him down dark alleys and into seedy locales, and often results in him providing a brutal beating or two. Leo is a bruiser, more muscle than brain, and while it’s easy to find empathy with him, it’s not as easy to be as engrossed in his mission.

The other main storyline focuses on two wise-cracking, morally dubious ex-Army surgeons – Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). While Skarsgård’s Leo may seem like the main character, it becomes apparent quickly that Cactus Bill and Duck are the two individuals Jones is most interested in. At times it almost seems as if the film Jones really wanted to make as about these two guys, and then someone insisted he insert a more sympathetic character in there, somewhere.

Cactus Bill and Duck are monsters. They run what’s essentially a torture and murder operation out of their basement, and they’re both borderline sociopathic. Of the two, Rudd’s Cactus Bill is more sympathetic, mostly because he’s devoted to his young daughter. But that’s not enough to redeem the character, or his actions. Theroux’s Duck is more duplicitous, and also more vile – a fact the film slowly reveals, with queasy results.

In anyone else’s hands, these two characters would be repellent to the extreme. But Jones was wise enough to cast the inherently likable Rudd and Theroux in the roles, which makes the characters much easier to stomach. Rudd and Theroux are naturally charming, and both actors have dynamite chemistry together. As a result, it’s hard not to enjoy watching these two, despite all the awful shit they do.

There are several ways these two distinct storylines interconnect, but to give that away would spoil things. I will say this, though: the connection almost doesn’t matter. Both are clearly distinct from each other, and the odd times they do connect, they do so grudgingly. It’s as if these storylines would rather be free to go their own weird directions, but they’re forced to continually interact, awkwardly.

By the time Mute draws to its somewhat rewarding conclusion, you’re left with an unfortunate, hollow feeling. The film is so unrelentingly nasty, so unapologetically misanthropic, that you almost have to respect it…but that doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. Buried in all of this are some fine elements. Jones’ direction is consistently immersive and impressive. Clint Mansell‘s soundtrack is divine. The performances are stellar, particularly Rudd, playing perhaps the most despicable character in his entire career. (He also gets to show off a glorious mustache.) The way Rudd balances his character’s terrible elements with his more empathetic moments is a treat to watch…but like almost every other good thing in Mute, it’s just not enough.

Jones is a wonderful filmmaker. He’s able to lay out glorious imagery, and he’s able to create memorable, distinct characters. But something about Mute never clicks. I take no pleasure in relaying this news. Sadly, Mute was not worth the wait. This is a passion project for Jones, and I’m thrilled he was able to finally get it made. I just hope he can now move on to making something better instead.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net