I have a complicated history with Mute. It might seem odd for a relatively low-key release, but I had huge expectations for this sci-fi noir thriller. Writer/director Duncan Jones previously made three movies in his relatively short career. He wrote and directed Moon, which I like as a curiosity and a showcase for Sam Rockwell‘s acting skills, but not so much as a full-length film. Then he made Source Code, which is a great, tight, entertaining thriller. And then he made Warcraft, which I fully expected to dislike (having little affinity for the video game series aside from enjoying Warcraft II on PC many eons ago), but instantly fell in love with. It’s a gorgeous blockbuster with stunning visuals, great characters, excellent acting, heart, and thrilling action.
So when I heard that Jones was making another movie, I was all in. And when it turned out to be something smaller in scale and more personal than Warcraft, a movie that Jones calls the spiritual successor to Moon, I was perplexed but still optimistic. It all seemed very mysterious, but with a stellar cast featuring Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux, I had little doubt that Mute would be something special.
Netflix scooped up Mute, bypassing theaters (aside from a few screenings in L.A.) and sending it directly to the streaming service on 2/23/18. Why Netflix? The movie is set in a futuristic Berlin, so the gleaming cityscapes would be a sight to behold on the big screen. Maybe Netflix saw something in the film that other distributers didn’t see. Or maybe other studios didn’t think it would find an audience in theaters. It’s a stubbornly old-school film, feeling like Casablanca and 90’s Tarantino had a love-child with Blade Runner. It’s quirky and sentimental and raw, and one of the main storylines involves pedophilia. Perhaps it was never destined to be a mainstream hit.
The plot consists of a follow-the-leads detective story with lots of moving parts. You follow Leo (Skarsgard, in a shockingly restrained and tender performance), a hulking, slumped-shouldered, 6’5 Amish guy who lost the ability to speak as a child. His mom refused to implant the technology to help him speak (because God wouldn’t approve), so he shuns technology and interacts with the world by scribbling on a notepad or gesturing helplessly. Leo is a bartender at a club, and his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) works as a waitress at the same club. One night she vanishes, and Leo sets out to find her.
The love story isn’t entirely convincing (they barely know each other), but Leo’s earnestness and determination is nonetheless endearing. As Leo follows leads to track down his girlfriend, we are introduced to Cactus (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux), a pair of military surgeons who do sketchy work removing bullets from mobsters. Cactus is determined to leave the country with his daughter, while Duck is content to stay in Berlin and attach cybernetic limbs to children. Rudd and Theroux both absolutely kill it in their roles. They are funny, intense, terrifyingly hypocritical, and their bizarre friendship really leaves a lasting impression. One scene finds Cactus confronting Duck about finding hidden cameras in a children’s’ dressing room, and the tension feels genuine and earned. After that they go drink beers at the mall, because that’s what friends do.
Their paths intersect with Leo’s frequently, though indirectly, for much of the movie. Leo’s actions influence Cactus and Duck, and vice versa, leading to a series of brief but intense confrontations. The movie successfully sets up several mysteries that play out and pay off, rewarding viewers who pay attention (or watch it multiple times, like I did). The dialogue is frequently amusing and disturbing (much of this is due to Rudd’s stellar performance), and the tone can change at a moment’s notice. The flow of the story and the misdirections worked for me.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
I really enjoyed Mute. I know its reception has been mixed (it’s currently sitting at a bleak 9% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), but I encourage you to check it out and judge for yourself. The movie is filmed beautifully, the music by Clint Mansell fits perfectly, and there are three outstanding performances on display. I’ve seen a lot of comments about how boring it is (it’s not), how the futuristic setting adds nothing to the film (it does), and how the separate characters and plotlines seem too disconnected (they aren’t, at all). I know everyone is in a rush to pump out movie reviews as quickly as possible, but Mute deserves some time to sink in and appreciate. Take the time to let it draw you in and I think the story will stay with you.