By Fergus McGillivray (Los Angeles, CA, US)
It would be too easy and too cruel to make a joke about Netflix’s latest original film Mute never “finding its voice,” but it would be very accurate. Despite a promising cast and a premise with enough uniqueness to stand out from a recent swarm of new sci-fi films, Mute finds itself following The Cloverfield Paradox to the overcrowded Netflix bargain bin.
Duncan Jones’ spiritual sequel to his 2009 film Moon is set in Berlin, forty years from now. We are introduced to protagonist Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgard), an ordinary man aside his lack of speech – the result of a childhood injury left untreated by his Amish parents on religious grounds. Leo lives a (very) quiet life, content with his bartender job and girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). However, when an incident at work leads to Naadi’s sudden disappearance, our communicatively impaired hero is thrown into a brutal world of danger and mystery as he embarks on a search for the only person who ever truly heard him…or something.
Rather than the logical lack of dialogue, it’s a dull, painfully clichéd script that restricts Skarsgard from delivering anything but a wooden, unrelatable performance. The few displays of emotion Skarsgard is allowed tease the vast squandered potential of exploring a mute character, as Sally Hawkins recently demonstrated so brilliantly in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The brief bits allocated to Saleh’s Naadirah are equally dreary in writing and delivery; at times so excruciating that one might find oneself more relieved than anxious when she mysteriously vanishes early in the film.
Confusingly, Jones chooses to focus a lot of attention on a subplot involving two surgeons working in the city’s criminal underground. The duo make a living pulling bullets out of street thugs’ thighs and occasionally torturing a person of interest for the mob. Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) is a sarcastic, boisterous, and generally unpleasant American, complete with a comically massive and equally unpleasant mustache. Cactus’ sidekick Duck (Justin Theroux), a sassy, soft-spoken man with a knack for technology. For the role, Theroux is draped in what simply must be a wig of sandy blonde locks that looks about as believable as his compatriot’s facial fur. Regardless of their unique costuming, their narrative somehow ends up feeling more compelling than the main plot. Considering their caricature appearances and over-the-top personalities, both Cactus and Duck receive a surprising amount of character development. Their goals, values, and weaknesses are fleshed out decently well, including Cactus Bill’s desire to get his papers in order and return to the United States with his daughter, and Duck’s struggle with a problematic fetish. Regardless of the unique costuming choices and equally obtuse writing, this storyline sometimes feels more compelling than the main plot, and threatens to usurp rather than support it.
Small spoilers ahead.
Inevitably, the two plotlines clumsily, awkwardly intersect. Through Leo’s rapid collection of convenient clues, he is led to the criminal network in which Cactus and Duck also operate, and their fates become tied. A couple quick scenes attempt to build a connection between Leo and Cactus’ young daughter Josie, which should have smoothed the story overlap, but their relationship is surface level at best and the effort never pays off in the way Jones probably hoped. The two narratives compete rather than synergize.
Duncan Jones attempts to make some kind of statement about how children must endure the repercussions of their parents’ sins by linking Leo’s experience living with a physical handicap to the assumed trauma inflicted on little Josie by her father’s criminal lifestyle. Sadly, the moral is buried beneath the lifeless missing-person story, a handful of worthless side characters, and a distracting subplot. There is too much going on and our attention is stretched too thin to appreciate any one of these aspects. Even sadder is the waste of a unique and detailed design of future Berlin, complete with somewhat silly yet realistic features like drone-delivered takeout, hologram street signs, and ‘clap-on’ televisions. Jones’ vibrant and colorful city just happens to be overpopulated with uninteresting people. It might be time for Netflix to pump the brakes on sci-fi for a while. This one left me…speechless.