The best 30 seconds of Duncan Jones’ long-gestating, Netflix-financed and finally-released Mute comes early on, when its silent protagonist Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) sits in a Berlin coffee shop eating his breakfast, facing away from a television that’s blaring on about some American astronaut’s trial. That spaceman is, of course, Sam Rockwell’s character from Jones first and still-best film, Moon, and we linger on the television for a second to see several Sams arguing with one another as they’re being deposed. It’s a great little coda to a film that left us on a bit of a cliffhanger (and a garishly stupid talk-radio voice-over close-out), before it’s switched off by the cafe’s owner. You see, Leo’s formerly Amish, and he doesn’t watch television, so the bartender attempts to oblige his presumed beliefs.
Yes, those are actual details from the movie.
What follows is a morose meditation on fatherhood, obscured by hellacious ugliness both inside and out and Paul Rudd’s facial hair. It’s the latest in a long string of failures for the streaming service on the “Original Movie” section of their platform, as its executives keep on mistaking the passed-over projects rejected by the major studios as an admission of their quality. You have to feel bad for Jones, whose passion for this film has never faded over the 16 years that it took to get this project to the screen, but not bad enough to delude yourself into liking this.
So, back to business. Leo’s a quiet-type bartender who can’t talk, having had his vocal cords severed in a boating accident when he was a child, and whose mother refused a surgery that could have helped him on religious grounds, on account of her being Amish and all. He lives in 2019 Los Angele — I mean, Berlin in the 2050s, with its Syd Mead-style flying cars and garish neon advertisements, working in a night club that puts him adjacent to all sort of bad shit: Forced prostitution, human trafficking, murder… you name it. But our boy’s able to see the stars from the gutter he’s in, thanks to the affection he receives from a blue-haired beauty named Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). She’s got a troubled past, and he’s a sensitive and loving person, and they’re basically forced to be together in films like this. But after a night of passion, she disappears without a trace, and Leo tries to track her down.
If this were the only part of the movie, it still wouldn’t be great and definitely wouldn’t rock Denis Villeneuve to his core, but it’d be fine enough. Skarsgard is an interesting presence no matter what limitations the roles he takes give his handsome head, and he’s occasionally quite soulful. It’s not hard to buy him as a tough guy with a heart of gold (and he and Saleh have a swell relationship, perhaps the only absorbing one in the entire film), and he fits into the world that Jones wants to portray quite well, even if his Amish origins are about as oddly misshapen and applied as they are here. (Why are the Amish back in Germany you might ask? Well, a handy framed Newspaper front-page tells us that the German Chancellor appealed to them to return to their homeland.) His Berlin is indistinguishable from other far-flung futures — and occasionally feels like someone asked Paul W.S. Anderson to do his interpretation of a Moebius landscape — but that hasn’t stopped decent films from being made even if they inhabit another person’s imagination. It’s the other half of the film that really does all the damage and makes this movie ugly.
That’s right, the film also tells the story of Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux, who seems content to show up in any sci-fi movie as long as he’s given a goofy wig), two American soldiers who make a living in Berlin as the on-call medics for a group of Russian and German toughs, including the boss of the nightclub that Leo works at. The former’s AWOL (as many soldiers are, apparently after the US has engaged itself in another war in the Middle East, a bit of political commentary that was both somewhat novel and vaguely expected when this screenplay was written but is stale now) and looking to get out of the country and back to the States with his daughter, and the latter, having served his time, does it for fun and the chance to spend time with his Bestie. Bill’s a psychopath, though Jones occasional tries to emphasize that Everything He Does, He Does It For Her to us, and Duck’s a pedophile whose day job involves him fitting injured children with prosthetics. Yeah, yikes.
Bill is an unrepentantly awful character, and he’s played with an annoying ferocity by Rudd, obviously delighting in the chance to play against his type and to wear a goofy-ass handlebar mustache. He’s ugly, he’s stupid, he’s an Ugly Stupid American who drives a futuristic Jeep embellished with the American Flag, and he snarls one-liners at everyone around him that might have seemed funny once upon a time. Hell, they might have even read funny on the page, but in his hands they’re just bitter pills that make everything else hard to swallow. Theroux is somehow even worse, as he strains to be creepy and funny and a soft power compliment to Rudd’s more obvious evil, and we somehow spend about as much time with the two of them as we do Leo, as if Jones realized that an entire movie of Skarsgard walking around signing to people to help him and wasn’t enough for the interest of modern audiences, and that they required some ugliness in order to sate their lust for bleakness.
Because of these dueling plotlines, and their eventual and intelligence-insulting collision, Mute is roughly 30 minutes too long and narratively unsatisfying in all forms. Even the few fun scenes — especially an interrogation buffeted by sex robots fucking in the foreground of the shot complete with Dominic Monaghan clad in Geisha make-up — can’t make much of an impression through the bleakness. It has none of the hypnotic power of the film that it so desperately wants to emulate, none of the dreamlike quality or the imagination, it only has Justin Theroux installing cameras in his patients’ dressing rooms so that Paul Rudd can get mad about it. Even whatever message Jones wants us to take away from the film is lost in the morass, and as a result, the film just feels empty. Even the CGI Orcs in Warcraft had more to say and more feeling in their eyes.
Still, it’s hard to fault Jones for trying to make the movie he wanted to make, even if that film is an ugly mess that should have probably stayed on the damn page, especially after we had a great Blade Runner sequel hit theaters last year.
Netflix, though, that’s something else. You can’t find the movie on the homepage — I had to search the site in order to get for it, which is a normal thing that happens to their “original movies”. And you can feel the cynicism behind this film’s release on Netflix at this specific time the minute the credits roll, as you’re treated to a trailer for their other cyberpunk dystopia, the Original Series Altered Carbon, which had it’s launch buried by their attempt at “winning” the Super Bowl media week, The Cloverfield Paradox. Perhaps this will now draw eyes back to that series, and wind up in the “Recommended for ____” section of your queue.