When I heard a new Duncan Jones film was coming to Netflix, I was excited. I loved both ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’ and it looked like ‘Mute’ would also have a sci-fi/futuristic element. When I saw the trailer, it looked even more up my street – a noir set in a ‘Blade Runner’-style world about a mute bartender searching for his missing girlfriend. The cast was also stacked, leading to me having really high hopes for this one.
Then came the reactions.
Woo boy, the reactions. According to the internet, ‘Mute’ is vile and offensive trash and yet another reason to blame Netflix for the death of movies (‘Cloverfield Paradox’ being another recent example). My take on ‘Mute’ is more complex – I neither loved it or hated it and I feel that most of the overreactions have been unduly harsh.
The film starts by showing the reason why Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) is mute, after a boating accident tears his vocal chords, his Amish family do not allow him to have the surgery that would repair them. As an adult in a futuristic Berlin, Leo tends bar in the same club as his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). Leo wants his girlfriend to move in with him and take things to the next level, but in true noir-style, she keeps warning him that she has a secret – a dark hidden past that will change his perception of her. When she goes missing, Leo turns to her best friend Luba (played by a stunning Robert Sheehan) for help. He also becomes embroiled with two ‘doctors’ – Cactus Bill (played by Paul Rudd in a magnificent moustache) and Duck (an unrecognisable blond Justin Theroux) – who run an extremely shady side-line in torture, among other things. There is also a cameo by Dominic Monaghan, as one of the people Leo ‘questions’ in his search for Naadirah.
I shall start positively – this film had impressive visual effects, for a film that presumably had a limited budget and effective world-building. It featured believable touches such as your take-out being delivered by drone. Leo, who has been raised Amish is obviously struggling in this technological world, even resisting having a mobile phone. He also spends his time beautifully carving and crafting wooden furniture, in an attempt to create a homely environment for Naadirah. Skaarsgard gives a tender performance as Leo, in a totally different role to his award-winning turn in ‘Big Little Lies’. Something else I really liked about this film was the subtle nods to the fact that this takes place in the same universe as ‘Moon’ – the multiple Sams are shown on news footage on TV screens in the background. This film features one of my favourite Paul Rudd performances, purely because it’s so different to his usual charming fare. He uses his charm here as a weapon – to seduce those around him to do his bidding, including using prostitutes to babysit his daughter. Another extremely positive aspect for me is the score by my current favourite film composer; Clint Mansell. He can do no wrong in my eyes (ears?) and this is another stunning example from him.
Cactus Bill’s daughter is where the film becomes problematic for many viewers. A man who is capable of terrible violence, yet shows a softer, caring side with a young ward is a dynamic we have seen recently in ‘Logan’, among other films. This definitely adds a layer of moral complexity to Paul Rudd’s character, because he is happy doing evil to others, but when it came to his own daughter, he is obviously protective. The problem here is that Bill’s partner Duck is gradually revealed to be a paedophile. For me, this had a purpose within the plot because it added a lot of tension to the end which wouldn’t otherwise have been there. It is also used as a plot device in ‘Sin City’ – a film I can see as an influence on this and I don’t remember there being this level of moral outrage about that film.
I can understand the arguments leveled at ‘Mute’. The female characters are tropes, rather than fully fleshed-out characters. They really boil down to the missing girlfriend who only exists to give Leo his mission within the plot and a few workers at nightclubs, stripclubs and brothels. However, this is a staple of the genre and I heard similar arguments made against ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘Baby Driver’ last year, both of which I loved (I’m clearly a terrible feminist). Another accusation against this film has been homophobia. I personally feel that Luba, played by Sheehan is a complex character and not just a caricature. He clearly loves Naadirah deeply and is allowed to show different sides of himself. Some people have said that Theroux’s character Duck shows that the film equates homosexuals with paedophiles, however that was not my interpretation of that character at all. Another thing people have been disgusted by is that the film is dedicated to Jones’ father, David Bowie and his nanny. I believe that Jones was exploring different types of parenthood in this film, from the seemingly ‘good’ mother to Leo, who actually damages him, to the perceived terrible father Cactus Bill, who actually has some positives. He is showing that there is no such thing as ‘traditional’ parenthood and this is understandable coming from someone who must have had an unconventional upbringing.
My main issue with this film, rather than being outraged or offended is that it did feel long and slow-paced. The plot lost its way at times, certainly in terms of holding my attention. However, the end did pick up for me and provided some effective tension. This film certainly is risk-taking and I can see why it found a home on Netflix, rather than on wide cinema release. I see it as a positive that films like this can be made and released and they won’t please everyone or always succeed, but are at least experimental and interesting. I would encourage people to look past the howls of derision that have greeted this film and give it a chance, particularly if you have enjoyed modern-day twists on noir, such as ‘Sin City’. It is violent, gritty and has adult themes that will offend some people, but I enjoyed it. I’m not sure what that tells you about me.
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh