More Than Darkness: Exploring Duncan Jones’ Mute

With spoilers, we delve into Duncan Jones' Mute, and explore the themes of parenthood and hope in a dark and despairing thriller...

The following contains major spoilers for Duncan Jones’s Mute.

Whatever you thought of Mute, the latest film from director Duncan Jones, it’s clearly a deeply personal story. It’s a project the Moon and Source Code filmmaker spent the best part of 16 years getting off the ground; it’s set in a futuristic version of Berlin, a city Jones knows intimately from his childhood. In its noir-mystery plot, you’ll find all manner of nods and references to classic movies and other cultural touchstones: Robert Altman’s MASH, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, the Coens’ Big Lebowski – maybe even a glancing homage to Bullfrog’s cyberpunk videogame, Syndicate.

Mutes debut on Netflix was joined by a wave of largely hostile reviews, and it’s fair to say that we also struggled with it: something we weren’t expecting, given our enduring affection for Moon and Source Code. Even Warcraft, a studio film Jones admitted left him “beaten and bruised,” had us entertained. But Mute is a far more difficult, wayward animal: it lurches from one character perspective to the next, and repeatedly shifts tones from disturbing and brutal to borderline zany and back.

Indeed, Mute reveals the limitations of a typical movie review, particularly in the context of an online world where opinions assault us from all sides. Reviews are inevitably written after a single viewing, and to all intents and purposes represent a first draft: an opinion formed after a few hours’ deliberation and some hastily-compiled notes. It’s easy to miss small details after a single viewing; similarly, things that seemed out-of-place or jarring the first time can make far more sense the second.

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With this in mind, your humble writer sat down and watched Mute again. And then a third time. It was after these additional viewings that its themes began to resonate more clearly – specifically, the theme of parenthood, which we’d vaguely picked out at the time of our review but struggled to entirely nail down. Amid Jones’s dense, turning future-noir, it was a thread that initially felt difficult to discern, and only started to make sense once we thought more about the connection between Leo, the mute protagonist played by Alexander Skarsgard, and a much smaller character (in every sense) –  Josie, the little girl played by twins Mia-Sophie Bastin and Lea-Marie Bastin.

From one perspective, Josie isn’t exactly integral to the plot, which largely concerns Leo’s search across the darker corners of future Berlin for his missing girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). Before she vanished, Naadirah told Leo in so many words that she had an entire past that he didn’t know about. And sure enough, Leo’s amateur detective work brings him – and therefore us – into contact with some particularly sketchy characters – primarily a pair of AWOL military surgeons, ‘Cactus’ Bill (Paul Rudd) and ‘Donald’ Duck (Justin Theroux). 

Clearly modelled on two similar characters in MASH (Donald is likely a reference to the original Hawkeye actor in the movie, Donald Sutherland), Cactus and Duck are initially the kinds of morally compromised yet charismatic people we often see in off-beat indie crime thrillers. They do mucky jobs like removing bullets from legs for gangsters, but appear to have a decent streak, too: Cactus is clearly protective of his daughter, Josie, while Duck has a day job that involves giving cybernetic limbs to children.

It’s only gradually that the true depths of their depravity are laid bare: Duck is a paedophile who can barely suppress his predatory tastes, while Cactus is a violent sociopath who killed his own estranged wife – the wife, it turns out, was Leo’s girlfrend Naadirah. To add insult to an already horrendous crime, Cactus doesn’t even treat Naadirah’s broken body with dignity – she’s left dumped next to an empty freezer, loosely covered in a sheet of grubby polythene.

With images as sharp as this rubbing up against scenes of flying cars and smart-aleck partying, it’s little wonder, perhaps, that Mute was regarded with a certain amount of shock by critics. Certainly, there was little in Moon or Source Code that hinted that Jones had such dark, uncompromising scenes in him. We were similarly left wondering, after our first viewing, what it was about Mute‘s story that so captivated Jones. Why had he spent all that time and effort realising this strange and disturbing story for the screen? What connects the theme of parenthood with Leo – a character with no wife, no child, and no obvious tie with Cactus and Duck other than Naadirah’s tragic death? And why was Duck written as a sexual predator, anyway?

While we wouldn’t claim to know the definitive answers to these questions, we do at least have a theory – and it has a great deal to do with Josie. 

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Cactus and Duck spend so much of their scenes laughing and joking that it’s easy to overlook one obvious point: in her scenes with them, Josie never speaks. Whether she’s in a restaurant surrounded by gangsters or the waiting area of a brothel, she just sits and draws, happily letting her legs swing back and forth. In this regard, Josie and Leo have a clear connection: neither of them have a voice, and both are greatly affected by the choices made by their adult guardians.

Let’s rewind here to the beginning of the film: Leo, here still 10 years old at most, is gravely injured in a bizarre accident involving a speedboat. Surgeons could have repaired his damaged larynx, but for the intervention of Leo’s parents; they’re Amish, and their religion insists that God will take care of Leo’s injury. Through no fault of his own, and because of a single decision made by a parent, Leo’s life is changed forever.

In the film’s present – Berlin circa 2050 – Leo’s therefore permanently out of step with the rest of the world. He draws and he carves wood, wears braces and white cotton shirts. He still carries the residue of his parents’ techno-averse religion, though he’ll engage with an old mobile phone at the behest of his girlfriend.

Similarly, Josie is stuck in a world of prostitutes and gangsters, and her father seems entirely oblivious to the psychological damage he might be wreaking on his young daughter. Josie, like Leo and so many other kids, doesn’t have a voice: she’s moved from place to place, left to be looked after by strangers, and largely ignored. Cactus may think his fierce protectiveness makes him a good father – and maybe excuses his murderous behavior. He’s clearly anything but a good father. 

In Mute, adults are roundly portrayed as selfish, morally rudderless, broken or all three. Even Leo, a gentle soul, is prone to outbursts of violence. And this, perhaps, is the point of Mute: like many post-Raymond Chandler noir thrillers, it presents a world of moral grey areas and tar-black, ugly souls. But the underlying sentiment is surely that, even the most well-meaning of parents can leave a painful mark on their children. Leo was left damaged by a parent’s devout beliefs; we can only guess what childhood memories Josie will recount to her therapist when she grows up.

Several reviews on the web have described Mute as a “film with nothing to say” – that Leo’s lack of speech is simply a plot point with no pay-off. It could be argued, however, that even this aspect makes sense after a further viewing. Too often, children have no say at all in the way they’re brought up, who they’re brought into contact with, or the way they’re treated; either they don’t yet have the words to articulate how they feel, or they’re simply ignored by adults who are too busy or too selfish to listen.

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In this context, Duck’s sexual proclivities also make sense. Cactus knows all about them, because Duck barely hides his predilection for children; we see this repeatedly, either in a crowded bowling alley or in Duck’s toe-curling flirtations with a babysitter. Time and again, however, Cactus ignores this, partly because Duck’s an old army buddy, but more simply, because Duck’s useful to him. Duck’s a better surgeon and evidently smarter; cutting Duck out entirely would likely cut off a future source of income. Cactus may threaten Duck one moment over his proclivities (“Don’t touch my daughter” etc), but he’s too selfish and flawed to drive him away altogether. 

It’s here that Leo enters the frame again: too late to save his lover, but just in time to rescue Josie from an unimaginable fate at the hands of Cactus and Duck. We may raise an eyebrow at Duck’s bizarre eleventh-hour decision to perform surgery on Leo’s throat – apparently because he wants to hear Leo say ‘sorry’ – but we can at least nod at the sentiment. Sometimes, bad people do good things, almost despite themselves, to paraphrase one of Duncan Jones’ recent tweets.

All of which brings us back to our first observation: Mute is self-evidently a deeply personal film for Jones. Without delving too far into the realms of tabloid gossip, Jones’ early life as the son of David Bowie, a world-famous rock star, is well documented. Estranged from his mother at the tender age of 13, Jones spent his formative years moving from country to country with his father. Mute isn’t of course, based on Jones’ own childhood, but the parallels could be read into it: children affected forever, either physically or psychologically, by the lifestyles of their parents. Perhaps even the impossibility of being a good parent, given that all human beings are flawed to some degree. It’s telling that Mute is dedicated to two parental figures: Jones’ father, who sadly died in 2016, and his nanny, Marion Skene.

None of this is to say that Mute isn’t a flawed film. As a character, Leo gets rather lost in the mix; the loud, brash Cactus and Duck feel altogether too dominant for the story’s own good. But deeply flawed films can still have value, and Mute’s value becomes more clear after careful reflection. Its depiction of a sleazy, cheerfully psychotic characters is off-putting at first, but beneath it all there’s a thread of hope that is easy to overlook:  even in a world as cold and chaotic as Mute‘s, the vulnerable and the broken can still find a voice.  

The Geek’s Guide To SF Cinema by Ryan Lambie (Robinson, 15th February, £12.99) is available in the UK from Amazon and The Book Depository, in Australia from Dymocks and Amazon and in New Zealand from Mighty Ape.