A quick tip for watching Duncan Jones’ new movie, Mute: don’t look at it as a traditional noir story about a mute bartender trying to find out what happened to his girlfriend. Jones’ sci-fi film functions much better as an anthology with three leads. One lead is the mute bartender, but another is an AWOL army doctor trying to get out of Berlin, and the other is his friend who tries to fly under the radar because he’s a pedophile. Mute strains to bring these stories together, and while there’s eventually a narrative reveal for why they’re connected, they exist better as a thematic anthology revolving around alienation. While Jones has a bold, controversial approach for his story, he can’t quite seem to bring it all together, leading to a lot of false notes and misguided ideas.
Set several decades in the future, Mute follows the intersecting lives of three men in Berlin. One man is Leo (Alexander Skarsard), a man raised in the Amish faith who was rendered mute after being struck by a boat’s propeller as a child. Leo works as a bartender in a strip club where his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) works as a waitress. When Naadirah goes missing, Leo becomes a detective of sorts, trying to track her down. Elsewhere in Berlin, we meet mob surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). Bill is an AWOL soldier who works for mobsters in order to get papers that will allow him and his daughter to leave the country. As for Duck, he works alongside Bill, but Duck is also a pedophile who makes off-color jokes at his friend and barely hides his attraction to underage girls. Bill tolerates Duck’s despicable behavior, but also knows he’s dangerous.
Just the character of Duck shows why Mute is such a problem. If you’re going to have an unrepentant pedophile as one of your main characters, then having him share time with two other characters is a risky proposition. On a thematic level, Duck makes sense because his deviancy is a form of alienation. Leo is alienated from the rest of the world because he can’t speak, and Bill is alienated because he can’t get back to America (along with some serious rage issues that continue to pop up). But putting that into practice turns Duck’s perversion into something the film can’t really handle, and tends to employ it more as looming threat to Bill’s underage daughter. Yes, his alienation shows that the behavior isn’t always romantic or a state of longing, but can be vile and twisted. However, Duck can be a person or he can be a monster, and Mute awkwardly has him somewhere in between.
Although Bill and Duck contribute thematically to the movie, their storylines are never as strong or as well-defined as Leo. It may not be as flashy or as deep, but a film that’s just about Leo would be a solid neo-noir that still manages to address issues of alienation similar to Jones’ first feature, Moon, which takes place in the same cinematic universe as Mute. Whereas Moon’s Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is alienated from others due to isolation and his unique circumstances (I’m not going to spoil Moon if you haven’t seen it), Leo is isolated by his disability and a technological world he can’t connect to due to his Amish upbringing.
Jones also does an outstanding job of alienating the viewer from the film itself. The story doesn’t have a traditional structure, there are multiple protagonists, and then you have just a lot of weird techno-future stuff where there’s the Blade Runner-esque grimy neon, but also stuff like robot strippers (that don’t look human, but would fit well inside the world of Futurama), creepy designs, and basically a “keep out” sign for the future. There’s a deep sense of discomfort running throughout Mute, and not just because one of the main characters is a pedophile.
The problem comes with not really finding a way to integrate the Cactus Bill and Duck scenes. They seemed to have walked out of a darker version of MASH where Hawkeye and Duke terrorize people and secretly record underage girls in dressing rooms. But whereas Moon’s Sam Bell is a sympathetic character and, despite his fits of rage, so is Leo, we’re far more uneasy about Bill and Duck. Trying to reconcile that uneasiness and see these two with the same level of humanity with which we view Leo is one the movie can’t always pull off.
That uneasiness, and the confidence at which Jones approaches unpalatable aspects of his story, is reminiscent of his previous movie, Warcraft. You continually get the sense that rather than entice the audience or try to win people over to a certain idea, Jones is going full-steam ahead with his vision. On that level, I admire the sheer ambition of Mute in the same way I admired Warcraft for being an unabashed fantasy film. You have the same level of detailed world building where it feels like this setting always existed and we just walked into it, and you also have characters that don’t entirely work as they serve themes that never entirely come together.
This leads to a level of frustration where at one point I pretty much shouted (to no one in particular), “What is this movie?” and wish it came together in a more cohesive way. There are some brilliant decisions, like casting the innately likable Paul Rudd as the repulsive, violent Bill, and then there are choices that don’t work out at all, like the pacing between Leo’s story and the Bill/Duck story. The boldness of Jones’ vision demands to be admired, but the blurriness of his storytelling unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired.