A film review by Craig J. Koban March 12, 2018


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



Very few 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 technology.  Unfortunately, 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 waking moment. 

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.

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