Minor spoilers for Mute follow below.
Everybody loves Paul Rudd. He’s one of the most affable actors working today, and his everyman demeanor allows his weirder comedic instincts (see: Wet Hot American Summer) to sneak up on audiences undetected. Even then, when Rudd goes on a goofy riff like “Slappa da bass” in I Love You, Man, he’s incredibly lovable. And now he’s even an Avenger! Paul Rudd, America’s Sweetheart, is a Marvel Comics superhero. And yet, in spite of all of that, it feels like we’re still sleeping on just how talented an actor Rudd actually is, as evidenced by his mean, downright terrifying turn in Duncan Jones’ original sci-fi Netflix drama Mute.
Mute is more futurist than sci-fi, but the film takes place at an undetermined point in the future in Berlin. Alexander Skarsgard is the film’s protagonist, a bartender unable to speak, and the story finds Skarsgard’s bartender searching for his missing girlfriend through a Blade Runner-esque world, which brings him into contact with two shady medical “professionals.” Rudd plays Cactus Bill, an American surgeon and veteran who’s gone AWOL and is performing under-the-table surgeries for shady figures with his partner and best friend Duck, played with smarmy charm by Justin Theroux.
Mute is not a “nice” movie by any means, and casting Rudd was a stroke of genius. When the audience is first introduced to Bill and Duck, they seem like lovable enough guys. Sure they’re doing dirty work, but it’s only a means to an end—Bill is hoping to get out of the country with his young daughter. As the story progresses, however, the audience learns that Duck is actually a pedophile and Bill has an incredibly violent temperament with a serious lack of compassion.
In bringing Bill to life, Rudd’s inherent good nature works to his advantage, and I call his casting brilliant because Jones knew exactly the kind of baggage the audience would bring to the movie. Having seen Rudd play a number of “nice guys,” the audience has a baseline of likability they carry with them into the film without knowing a single thing about Bill. Rudd leans into that, throwing a smile here and a witty line there, and it works. We feel endeared to Bill.
But as the film wears on and its darker underpinnings become clearer, Rudd’s performance gets even richer. As we start to understand just how twisted Bill is, Rudd brings the character’s rage and selfishness to the surface in a way that literally takes the audience aback. We’re shocked to discover Bill is really not a good dude, but the beauty of Rudd’s performance is that Bill doesn’t “turn” bad. When all the cards are on the table, we realize he’s been playing the guy as a jerk this entire time—all of a sudden Bill’s jokes don’t seem so good-hearted, and what initially came off as aloofness is revealed to be callousness.
Rudd’s performance is so good in Mute that not only was his true nature right on the surface the entire time, but in retrospect the performance becomes that much more terrifying. Rudd is genuinely scary, and that’s a far cry from the insecure dude obsessed with Mindy Kaling in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Rudd isn’t even really a stranger to dramatic territory. That’s kind of where he got his start, acting in Broadway plays throughout the 90s and showing off his dramatic skills on the big screen in films like William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. The actor’s star began to rise following a key recurring role on the final seasons of Friends and his scene-stealing work in Anchorman, the latter of which introduced Rudd’s goofy sense of humor to audiences at large.
He’s continued to seamlessly weave in and out of different genres, turning in emotional work in indies like Prince Avalanche and The Fundamentals of Caring, serving as a swell comedy lead in studio films like This Is 40 and Role Models, and going full goofball in stuff like They Came Together and his unforgettable stint as Bobby Newport on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. And then of course he starred in a superhero movie called Ant-Man, which makes him a recurring part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Again, everybody loves Paul Rudd. No one denies this. And yet, watching Mute, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the guy is still somehow underrated. We love Paul Rudd, sure, but the reason we love him is he is a phenomenal performer. Insanely weird turns in films like They Came Together take skill, and that Rudd is believable as a Marvel superhero, disarming romcom lead, and despicable sci-fi surgeon is a testament to not only his versatility, but his talent.