Great science fiction is more than just window dressing – it’s metaphorical. In Blade Runner, the future Los Angeles of lost souls and runaway replicants was intrinsic to its themes of memory and mortality. Likewise the spare, cold lunar base in Moon, director Duncan Jones’ superb debut: it underpinned the story’s sense of loneliness and isolation.
Mute, Jones’ first film since his 2016 videogame adaptation, Warcraft, takes in touches of Blade Runner‘s noir thriller atmosphere and Moon’s quirky characters and poignant otherness. The result, however, is a genre piece that doesn’t hang together as well as either of those films.
Alexander Skarsgard stars as Leo, a 30-something bartender working in a near-future Berlin. Among a high-tech cultural melting pot, Leo stands apart from everyone else: a childhood accident robbed him of the ability to speak, and his Amish upbringing means that he avoids the use of electronic gadgets wherever possible. Amid a bitterly cold city of neon and crime, Leo’s one flicker of warmth comes from his relationship with Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a blue-haired, secretive waitress. When Naadirah disappears, Leo’s forced to engage with the city’s criminal underbelly of brothel owners, sex workers and underground surgeons.
Leo’s story alone could form the basis of a hardboiled detective thriller, but the script, written by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson, spends roughly equal time with two of those underground surgeons, the volatile Cactus (Paul Rudd, with a sleazy moustache) and Duck (Justin Theroux, in glasses and a blonde wig). Cactus has plans to use his criminal connections to whisk he and his daughter out of the city; Duck is content to remain behind and indulge his increasingly stomach-churning appetite for young girls.
While the story does eventually forge a link between these two scumbags and Skarsgard’s hero, it’s difficult to figure out exactly why the writers want to spend quite so much time with them. Nor is it obvious why Theroux’s character is written as a sexual predator; like a number of ideas in Mute, Duck’s perversity appears to have been thrown in as an aside. It’s possible that Mute‘s model is The Big Lebowski – another free-wheeling riff on the hard-boiled detective thriller that also happens to take in a cast of eccentric characters and a spot of bowling, but Jones struggles to handle his shifts between light and dark with the Coens’ surety of touch.
On a low budget – at least compared to something like Blade Runner 2049 – Jones creates a convincingly grim future Berlin. Its flashing signs, floating cars and outlandish makeup all cohere nicely, though there’s little here we haven’t seen in numerous other dystopian glimpses of the future – Mute‘s release on Netflix is unfortunate, given its proximity to the similarly noirish Altered Carbon. What’s never really established is why Mute even needs to be a sci-fi movie; aside from a few gadgets and vehicles, it could just have easily been set in some crime-ridden city of the present.
Thematically, meanwhile, Mute could have been as moving and thought-provoking as Moon. Parenthood comes up consistently in Mute: how a mother and father’s religion can have a life-changing impact on their child’s; how vulnerable children are to the morally murky adult world that surrounds them. But Mute’s two-strand approach to its story only serves to diminish its pace and clarity, and Leo’s detective story often threatens to vanish entirely as Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s characters bicker and scheme their way around Berlin’s grubbier districts.
Skarsgard’s expressive and haunted-looking as the moist-eyed Leo, a character who’s more into drawing and swimming than beating up bad guys, though he’s so tall and imposing that it’s difficult to figure out why Berlin’s assorted low-lifes – including Noel Clarke as a misogynistic nightclub denizen – treat him with such contempt. All the same, he’s a sympathetic character, and it’s a pity the plot doesn’t give him much to do beyond move gloomily from place to place; it’s hard to escape the feeling, particularly by the third act, that Leo isn’t so much driving the plot as shuffling along one step behind it.
After the humanistic, deeply moving Moon and the taut thrills of Jones’ second film, Source Code, Mute comes as something of a surprise. Not just because of the grotesque proclivities of its characters, but also because its pacing feels so slack. Nevertheless, Jones is a talented director, and there are moments when the brilliance of Moon shines through: the opening shot has an eerie, dreamlike quality; his more intimate moments with Leo showcase his ability to impart a sense of character with lighting and cinematography rather than words. Clint Mansell’s low-key, murmuring score also matches the story’s increasingly dour mood.
Taken on its own terms, though, Mute is something of a disappointment: a slow, muddy mystery that never quite clicks into gear; a sci-fi film that struggles to find its way amid its stifling future city.
Mute is available to watch on Netflix now.