By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
From a script that has been on the backburner for well over a decade, film-maker Duncan Jones finally sees his labour-of-love project come to fruition, but the resultant film proves to be a major disappointment, largely devoid of imagination and characters of any interest.
Set in Berlin in the near future, the story centres around Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), who due to a boating accident as a child, is unable to speak. Following the Amish code, which includes shunning all forms of technology, Leo works as a bartender at a popular nightclub called Foreign Dreams, run by gangster Maksim (Gilbert Owuor). Also working there is his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), who is saving everything she makes so the two can leave for a better life.
Following a confrontation with some unruly patrons at the club, Naadirah disappears, so Leo attempts to track her down, but as he does so, discovers that his true love may have somewhat of a dark past. Complicating matters is Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd), an AWOL military surgeon/torturer who is currently trying to get papers so he and his young daughter Josie (played by twins Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin) can secretly leave Berlin. Bill and fellow colleague Duck (Justin Theroux), who carry out violent tasks for Maksim, continually cross Leo’s path, hampering his chances of finding out what has happened to Naadirah.
Mute is a lead-footed mystery/thriller that never seems to move out of first gear. The problem is the material never develops in a way to draw the audience in, and the plodding story is filled with characters who are lamentably dull. The glacial pacing doesn’t help, allowing the viewer to stay several steps ahead of the main hero. Though its script is deliberately reminiscent of classic 40’s film noir, the mystery on display here is decidedly by-the-numbers.
Performances are oddly stilted, frustratingly adding to the film’s already artificial atmosphere. Skarsgard (The Legend of Tarzan, True Blood, Big Little Lies) fails to make Leo intriguing in any way, defeated by the character’s inability to express himself through speech. Rudd has a lot of fun playing against type as Cactus Bill, his lively turn easily supplying the film its only energy and spark, while Theroux (The Girl on the Train, The Leftovers) can’t overcome one of his role’s jarring traits, a disturbing obsession that is both inadequately examined and poorly threaded into the main scenario.
Of course any film depicting a futuristic, overcrowded city will be compared to Ridley Scott’s highly influential Blade Runner (1982), but Mute, despite its considerable budget, has a surprisingly undistinguished visual design, lacking genuine invention and scope, and a number of CGI assisted structures never quite appear believable enough.
Co-writer/director Duncan Jones, who garnered quite a cult following for his films Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), but then received a caning for his 2016 big screen adaptation of the epic video game Warcraft (a movie which I thought was unfairly maligned), just cannot bring the screenplay’s various elements (some of which are fascinating) together in a cohesive manner, and its haphazard narrative makes Mute feel a lot longer than what it is. There is a notable, quite amusing reference to one of Jones’ earlier films, but the very fact that this throwaway moment feels like a highlight, only accentuates the endeavour’s hollow nature even more.
Mute is a misfire from an undoubtedly talented film-maker, and while not as bad as the other expensive Netflix movie Bright, it is sadly eminently forgettable. After Blade Runner 2049 joyously defied the odds, it’s a pity that this highly anticipated production doesn’t make the grade.