What is ‘Mute’?
The year is 2058, or thereabouts. The city, Berlin. When mute bartender Leo Beiler’s (Alexander Skarsgård) girlfriend goes missing, he starts to investigate her disappearance. His search leads him to a pair of American surgeons, named Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). Cactus is a US soldier gone AWOL, and works stitching up broken gangsters for shady club boss Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), while he awaits a new passport to flee the country. Duck is his best friend. As Leo follows up leads and chances upon some glaring clues, he eventually finds resolutions to his questions – but things won’t be wrapped up neatly. A final twist delivers a coda to complicate proceedings.
Stiff and Unpolished
The best thing about Duncan Jones’s Mute is its soundtrack. The tinkly Vangelis-lite score by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman turned film score composer, Clint Mansell, is the ideal accompaniment to a film that aspires to the heady heights of sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner. But which falls dismally short. Mansell likely delivered precisely what he was asked, without realising he’d be soundtracking a film that’s all the more blatantly woeful for its Blade Runner pretensions.
The second high-profile film featuring a non-speaking lead in the space of roughly as many months, Mute’s story unfolds through the eyes of Leo. Although, Alexander Skarsgård’s clunky and unsubtle performance as the protagonist here is a world away from the complex and empathetic work of Sally Hawkins as the voiceless lead in The Shape of Water.
Involved in a motorboat accident as a boy that left him with a throat injury his Amish parents refused to allow doctors to operate on, Leo makes ends meet as a barman in a sleazy club. As per the dystopian rulebook, strip clubs are a must, and alongside the largely female ‘entertainment’ at ‘Foreign Dreams’ — as this place is called — a crude robot dancer gyrates.
Sweet Clichéd Nothings
It seems that Leo has pinned all his dreams on a budding relationship with waitress Naadirah (Seynab Saleh). All mermaid-blue hair and lips, Naadirah is positioned as the femme fatale in the noirish tale, and hints at a dark past when she insists on revealing all to her lover. And we’re not talking full-frontal nudity, although he does get to spy on her side-boob as she takes a shower.
Problematically, their relationship never rings true – the glimpses we see of their burgeoning romance are cliché-ridden and unconvincing. He’s secretly been making a bed for the two of them using his carpentry skills — in a garage right next to his front door that she never knew he had. “It’s like it’s from a fairy tale,” she says to him. “I love you so much, but you don’t know me,” she warns. And then he wakes in the morning, and she’s gone. It’s very difficult to understand why he has fallen in love with this woman who goes missing – and vice versa. It’s a massive stumbling block the film can never overcome.
Dark and Twisted Double Act
The film and our ability to buy into it isn’t helped by the performances. Actors are in turn hampered by a less than compelling script. Paul Rudd as the facially hirsute Cactus Bill on the surface subverts his comic persona in a role that slaps a big old question mark over the character’s morals. He’s got a little girl, Josie (Mia-Sophie Bastin), of whom he’s fiercely protective, and yet he thinks nothing of leaving her in the care of prostitutes at a brothel. Thankfully, the women on the staff are more than happy to take her into their care and give their motherly tendencies an airing. But Rudd can never shake off his comedy baggage fully, adding a lightness to certain scenes that seems amiss. The film’s dramatic crescendo, in particular, is given a damagingly misplaced levity because of his presence.
Justin Theroux, meanwhile, as the Laurel to Paul Rudd’s Hardy in this dark and twisted double act, is chilling at times – if you can ignore the bad wig. But his role in the film’s coda struggles to convince, and feels badly handled and unnecessary as pastiche inadvertently comes into play. A small role for former hobbit and Lost alumnus Dominic Monaghan is unnecessary and curiously played for laughs, while Robert Sheehan – so memorable in Fortitude — is unrecognisable as trans bar-worker, Luba. Probably a good thing, as he’s arguably more likely than anyone to emerge with his reputation intact.
Guy Ritchie Echoes
A heightened reality undertone is at odds with the grittiness of a near-dystopia you can believe in, and this means characterisation feels distinctly out of place. There are echoes of Guy Ritchie in here, particularly in the interplay between Cactus and Duck, and Maksim’s bevy of burly gangsters — plus, the over-the-top wideboy duo played by Noel Clarke and Robert Kazinsky. But a lack of overt playfulness, and the characters’ general vileness, mean we’re never sure how to take it. Additionally, the subject matter gets very dark, indeed – this isn’t just cartoonish bad guys clowning around and taking each other out.
There’s nothing original to take away from Mute – from its grimy, Blade Runner neon-lit streets to its Guy Ritchie feel and film noir approach. It’s also a vigilante revenge movie, in the vein of Taken, and a 90s-style thriller draped in a fashionable sci-fi shroud. There’s even a nod to Twin Peaks.
Add to that a time span that’s tough to pin down and you’ve got a pretty untidy and confounding film. At times, it seems like everything happens during one endless night – although isn’t necessarily presented as such – and it’s befuddling why Leo seems to end up back home so frequently. Before heading out again almost immediately. Then come some daylight scenes, before a whip-fast sequence denoting a flashback takes you back a couple of days to the night Naadirah goes missing. And all becomes clearer. Sort of.
The film has you puzzling over numerous little plot holes and eye-rolling at all the convenient things that happen, while an inexplicable twist ending undermines all that’s gone before. A nod to a shared universe is a fun – if jolting – touch that serves to remind you of just how good Duncan Jones can be when he’s on top form.
On the plus side, recurring motifs eventually pay off, even if they’re heavily signposted, to give a sense of satisfaction. Leo’s early accident has resonance throughout, not only in his glugging of water and his regular swim sessions, but also in the main event – recalled later in a neat way of bringing things full circle. There’s also a role to play for his chosen method of communication — via notepad — as well as the ornate bedpost he’s made, as the film approaches its denouement. Oh, and the very last moments of the film draw your attention to a sweet little parallel between Leo and Cactus’s daughter Josie that you may not have noticed before.
Is ‘Mute’ Good?
From awkward dialogue to unconvincing and unengaging performances, Mute suffers because of its lack of attention to characterisation. Beyond that, Jones’s insistence on building in dystopian Blade Runner imagery and grittiness is at the expense of developing a credible and compelling story, and fully fleshing out his own world. Annoying plot holes and inconsistencies destabilise our suspension of disbelief. A peculiar twist ending, meanwhile, feels like an afterthought, and undermines the story we’ve spent almost two hours investing in. A dash of admirable storytelling flourishes from Jones can’t save this unlikeable science fiction letdown.