With solid endeavors in Moon and Source Code, Duncan Jones made a name for himself as one of the most promising genre directors out there. However, after the ambitious but flawed Warcraft, it seemed like he didn’t make an effective combination with huge budgets and the studio system. So it made perfect sense for him to seek shelter at Netflix, which has been working as a haven for directors running away from film industry constraints. Unfortunately, this partnership didn’t succeed in Mute, a movie that doesn’t take long to squander all the goodwill it had going for it.
The story follows a bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), who was left mute after a childhood accident. He has a mostly pedestrian life with his girlfriend until she disappears, so he has to discover what happened to her.
Skarsgard uses his imposing presence to a very different effect from his previous work. He conveys an endearing awkwardness that stands out in the mean-spirited environment where he lives. Even in the scenes where he gets violent, you always get the impression that he’s someone biting off more than he can chew. His understated and dignified performance is the best part of the movie. But despite his noble effort, Skarsgard is stuck playing a walking blank slate that’s limited to going from point A to point B attacking nondescript henchmen / gay panic stereotypes to find his girlfriend, who is ultimately reduced to a MacGuffin.
The other standout performance comes from Paul Rudd as a sleazy and xenophobic surgeon-mobster. It’s definitely interesting to see one of the most likable actors in Hollywood playing a straight-up loathsome jerk, and Rudd does his best to inject a cartoon factor to a borderline grimdark atmosphere (this is particularly evident in his last scene). Rudd is a de facto protagonist; a good chunk of the film is dedicated to his story which involves a lot of gratuitous violence, mind-numbing exposition and an exploitative take on child abuse. It also takes an eternity to find a meaningful connection to Leo’s story, and by the time that finally happens, your ability to care is gone. Following unlikable characters can result in genuinely compelling storytelling, but Mute fails to make a case for why a B-level goon with no discernible characteristics beyond “evil” deserves so much attention.
What makes Mute such a particularly frustrating watch is that it has many ideal elements for meaty thematic explorations that are used as nothing but window dressing. The movie takes place in Berlin several decades in the future, but there’s no justified reason for that. It could occur today and it would make no difference whatsoever (except perhaps a reduced budget). It doesn’t even have the decency to provide any sort of visual panache, since the production design is the type of generic Blade Runner wannabe we’ve seen countless times in the last three decades. The sci-fi setting seems like an excuse to have flying cars in the background, because why not? I guess.
The fact that Leo is mute is also a completely pointless trait. The film occasionally hints at themes about not being able to speak in a world that demands your voice and that defines your life by one traumatizing episode. But just when you think something exciting is about to happen with those ideas, the movie wastes no time going back to its paper-thin plot with all the urgency of a snail on tranquilizers.
To add insult to injury, Mute also happens to be a rather gross movie. Aside from the aforementioned gay panic stereotypes constantly threatening Leo, this is a world where women just exist to be disposable eye candy and to service the men. The juvenile and simplistic dialog they’re given doesn’t exactly help. There are also a few instances of sexual harassment meant only to start poorly choreographed fight scenes. Using a futuristic setting as a hollow gimmick is one thing; doing that with such a delicate subject matter just takes your film to the point where it’s irredeemable.
Movies created by poor teams with a bad premise may be boring or annoying, but at least you know to keep low expectations so that the pain from the punch quickly passes. Mute is not that kind of movie. It’s the type with legitimate potential to be a great experience, or at least, a perfectly respectable cult gem, and that’s why its staggeringly egregious failings stick out like a sore thumb. Netflix deserves appreciation for its entrepreneur spirit and allowing authors to do their thing without the typical pressures associated with theatrical releases. However, maybe they could start being a little more discerning with the projects they approve.