2018, No MPAA Rating, 126 mins.
Alexander Skarsgard as Leo / Paul Rudd as Cactus Bill / Justin Theroux as Duck
Directed by Duncan Jones / Written by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson
filmmakers have come dashing out of the gate with as much confidence and
creativity in their first two films than Duncan Jones.
His 2009 ultra low budget sci-fi thriller MOON
marked an audacious beginning for his career, and he subsequently followed
that up with 2011's trippy mind bending time traveler themed SOURCE
CODE, which I thought was even better than his debut effort.
He recently was given the daunting task of adapting WARCRAFT
- one of the most beloved video game properties of all time - into a live
action fantasy film. It was flawed, but Jones'
impressive command over the film's production
design and thankless visual effects made it thoroughly watchable.
Now comes his
latest offering, the Netflix produced MUTE, which by Jones' own admission
has been a long gestating and lingering in production hell sci-fi outing
that is to serve as a spiritual sequel to MOON (both films take place
within the same cinematic universe, with some sly scenes in MUTE directly
linking them). His futuristic sci-fi noir has been heavily inspired by
Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER,
which can be felt through every frame (sometimes to distracting effect).
MUTE is indeed a visual marvel, which shouldn't surprise anyone
based on Jones' displayed poise in his previous films, and it also
contains some compelling ideas about how people - in this film's case, an
Amish man - relates to and tries to live separately from futuristic
MUTE becomes so baffling meandering the longer it lumbers on, containing
multiple story threads that struggle hard at coalescing together smoothly
to create some semblance of a meaningful whole.
Worst of all, MUTE is shockingly inconsistent on a level of basic
tone, which is regrettably married to a story that seemingly never really
goes anywhere. Sadly, this is
a major creative fumble for its extremely talented young filmmaker; I'm
sad to report that I barely was able to get through it in one sitting.
At least the
film's opening scene has a refreshingly different vibe than what we're
accustomed to in most standard sci-fi thrillers, which hints at a much more
compelling film overall than what we're given later.
The film introduces us to its main character as a child and at a
time of a horribly tragic accident: He's an Amish boy that's terribly
injured, but when his staunchly religious parents refuse the much needed
surgery that's recommended by the hospital's doctors, it leaves the boy
permanently unable to speak. The
film then flashes forward several decades into the future and we meet back
up with the boy (now an adult), Leo (Alexander Skarsgard, committing
himself to the performance challenge of giving a performance that's 99%
silent), who's now living in a Berlin that looks an awful lot like the
futuristic L.A. of BLADE RUNNER. Coming
from a background and culture that shunned him and his kind away from
technology of any kind, Leo struggles daily to not give into the endless
stream of digital conveniences that overwhelms every facet of life.
When you live in a world of building sized electronic billboards,
flying cars, and 24/7 drone deliveries, you can appreciate how hard it is
for Leo to life the simple life.
Oddly enough, he
works at an adult nightclub as a bartender and has a budding romance with
one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyned Saleh), who nurtures and supports
him despite not being able to verbally communicate with him.
One day, without warning, she doesn't show up to work and
disappears, which greatly worries Leo, sending him deep into the seedy
Berlin underworld while following a series of macabre clues that may point
to her location. Concurrent
to his journey is the story of two ex-military surgeons, Cactus (Paul
Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), both of whom cater to the mortal wounds
of any dying crook that has money to pay them in their underground
clinics. Cactus' main
motivation in life is to secure his daughter's future and escape the
clutches of Berlin, whereas Duck's easygoing demeanor masks a despicable
heart and unhealthy sexual desires that seems to turn off Cactus a every
MUTE has one
thing going for it: Even though this is a Netflix film, it looks as
polished and lush as any theatrically released sci-fi film, showing its
vast budget throughout in its depiction of a cyberpunk infused Berlin of
the future. Teaming up with
cinematographer Gary Shaw and production designer Gavin Bocquet, Jones
creates an impressively atmospheric and immersive film, even though, at
its core, the overall aesthetic design appears more than a tad
plagiaristic of BLADE RUNNER (there's nothing inherently wrong with Jones
letting loose with his fanboyism for Scott's seminal 1982 film, but
oftentimes it holds MUTE back from achieving a level of transcending
visual innovation that I think the film is desperately trying to spawn).
On paper, Leo is an intriguing character for a film such as this,
especially for how his Amish heritage forbids him to submit to all of the
computerized marvels that surround him constantly.
There's something inherently fascinating about witnessing a
speechless man that hurtles himself through the darkest recesses of
Berlin's criminal underbelly to find and save the woman of his dreams. Skaarsgard is quite good in the film channeling this man's
vulnerable despair, but his physical determination and ferocity while on
his desolate journey.
The main issue
with MUTE, though, is that it never fully feels like it's Leo's story
through and through. The aimlessness of Jones' surprisingly undisciplined script
does this film in throughout, especially for how it awkwardly segues from
being a would-be enthralling mystery detective noir and into a remarkably
sleazy and excessively brutal portrait of the two criminal surgeons, who
feel like they got warped into this narrative from a whole other film
entirely. As Jones awkwardly traverses between savagely violent
altercations, perverse degenerates, and a totally unsavory and unnecessary
subplot involving one character's toxic pedophilia I was left asking a few
simple questions: What is MUTE really trying to be about? What is its focus? Whose
story is most important? MUTE
is a lost movie in the sense that it never seems to have a bona fide
plotting trajectory. That's
good if a movie has a daring sense of exciting unpredictability, but Jones
rarely makes a case for us to care about anyone or anything that's
happening here. At two hours
long, MUTE felt twice its length as I struggled to make through it and
maintain my interest.
I'm also not
entirely sure what Jones is trying for with the two surgeons, other than
to spice up MUTE with some black comedy that the solemn production
perhaps needed. It's
clear that Rudd, for example, has fashioned his doctor to look like
Trapper John from MASH, complete with Elliot Gouldian moustache.
The gallows humor by Cactus and Duck as well further echoes the
vibe of MASH, showing the bickering pair exchange wisecracks while
operating on mobsters. The
two actors have an offbeat chemistry, to be sure, but their interplay and
subplot feels completely incongruent from the rest of Leo's tale.
Theroux excels at playing his own unique brand of creeps, but Rudd
in particular feels egregiously miscast here, whose typical nice guy
snarkiness seems like a mismatch for Cactus' hostile rage and sometimes
reprehensible brutishness. The
actor has never been so thoroughly dislikeable in a film before.
MUTE score a few minor points of surprise ingenuity in its final climatic moments, but it comes so devastatingly late into an already endurance testing film that it's all for naught. I can, however, see Jones' rationale with some of his choices in MUTE: Setting it in Berlin has deeply personal meaning for him, seeing as his late father David Bowie lived there while recording most of his greatest albums from the 1970s. Sentimental motivations aside, MUTE is a regrettably colossal misfire on the resume of a filmmaker that has no business making a film so scattershot, unbalanced, nonsensical, and ultimately dull. It wants to achieve a level of epic sci-fi, but seems to have no idea how to achieve such a stature. Jones is a strong established filmmaker with a unique sense of unbridled ambition, but he's also above the crushing mediocrity of MUTE, a bad film that has mournfully silenced his innovative voice.