In Mute, Alexander Skarsgard plays Leo, a bartender who lost his ability to speak in a boating accident 20 years earlier when he was a child. Scarred and silent, a hulking but gentle soul prone to the occasional temper flare-up, Leo now lives and works in Berlin, circa the 2050s, where he is in love with a woman named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) who waitresses at the same club as him. When Naadirah abruptly vanishes one night — after hinting at a troubled past that her lover knows little about — Leo embarks on a quest to find her that brings him into direct conflict with crooked local businessmen, Russian gangsters, and two AWOL American soldiers (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who have an agenda of their own that Leo may be inadvertently interfering with.
Mute is an especially personal project for director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft), who has been attempting to get it made for 15 years and finally found a home for it at — you guessed it — Netflix. It’s easy to see why a major Hollywood studio might be averse to the film: it’s aimed squarely at adults, with a twisting storyline set in the shadowy underbelly of a future European society that’s one part Blade Runner, one part A Clockwork Orange and one part Eastern Promises — not an easy sell to the teens and twentysomethings. It’s set in a world that’s a recognizable extrapolation from our own, its denizens even more connected and distracted online while its gleaming ebony towers loom high over winding covered alleys where all sorts of sordid deals are going down.
One gets the sense that this world is barely under control, and there seems to be little or no higher authority or particularly effective enforcement of the law: news bulletins warn citizens to be on the lookout for vast numbers of American military deserters, who are running away from yet another (or perhaps it’s still the same one) misadventure in the Middle East. Rudd’s Cactus Bill and Theroux’s Duck are two such soldiers, although as their more sinister depths are revealed it’s hard to say whether the war poisoned them or vice versa.
There’s also a jauntiness and irreverence to the two men that clashes with the actions they take and creates a weird tonal dichotomy in the movie, much as the initial scenes of Leo and Naadirah’s romance set a pace that’s not quite glacial but slow enough to get Mute off on the wrong foot. Yet oddly we don’t spend quite enough time with them as a couple to grasp the fervor with which Leo sets out to find Naadirah after she exits. There are other aspects of Leo’s character — he’s from an Amish background, which puts him at cross purposes with the aggressively high-tech city in which he finds himself — that are not developed as forcefully as they could be, along with more spoilerish narrative connections that don’t quite hit as hard as they should, leaving Mute an intriguing but frustrating experience.
Skarsgard and Rudd are both very good, even if they aren’t given all the tools they need to make the characters really crackle, and Rudd exhibits — like all the best comic actors — a shockingly dark side to his usual amiable screen personality. Skarsgard has the eyes and physical presence to sell both Leo’s anger and vulnerability. Theroux’s character is more problematic in several ways, with his hidden motivations seemingly designed to be especially unsettling without being intrinsic to the story at hand. It’s one of the many side paths that Mute takes without necessarily linking back to the main narrative.
In that sense, Mute feels almost like an extended TV pilot than a feature film, with some narrative strands wrapped up and others feeling like they’re left to be explored further in the next episode. Jones and his co-screenwriter Michael Robert Johnson pack a lot of world-building and foundation-laying into the movie’s two hours, but the elements never quite cohere the way a feature film should — the character drama and the sci-fi aspects of the place and time feel strangely disconnected (although there is one genuinely funny bit that incontrovertibly links this film to Moon in a sort of “Duncanverse”).
Still, points must go to the director for ambition, intelligence, and for not pulling his punches, even if the movie trudges rather aimlessly toward its conclusion and doesn’t land the emotional moments that Jones clearly wants to deliver. One gets the sense that Jones has a lot he wants to say, but his film, like his protagonist, never quite finds its voice.
Mute is now streaming on Netflix.