Right around the time Sam Rockwell’s character(s) from Moon showed up on a TV screen at a hearing about the events from the film, it became clear just how personal and playful Duncan Jones’s new film MUTE was going to be, and by the time the unexpectedly powerful dedication at the start of the closing credits appeared, I was won over by how sad and strange it is as well.
Set in a near-future, Mute tells the story of an Amish man who was in a traumatic accident as a child that damaged his vocal chords, and so when we meet Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) as an adult, the only sound he’s capable of is air occasionally forced through his ruined throat. Right away, you know you’re not watching something that’s been through the studio process. There are so many choices in the first half-hour of this film that feel like they would have been strangled or smothered by the way studio notes normally work, and while there’s definitely a more commercial version of Mute that you could make, I’m not sure what the point would be. This is science-fiction at street level, a very personal story told out against what Hollywood typically only uses as the backdrop for big action films.
That’s the really fiendish thing about science-fiction world-building. Yes, you can try to find low-budget ways of doing it, but doing it to any scale and with any technical acumen requires money, and if you’re playing with someone else’s money on that scale, you need to post some pretty serious commercial returns. That’s why so much of what we call science-fiction is really other genre fare dressed up in sci-fi clothing. When Ridley Scott made Blade Runner, clearly he was drawing from the visual traditions of film noir as much as anything, and Mute certainly has a noir flavor to it. But it doesn’t feel like what Duncan Jones is doing is mere genre riffing for the sake of it. Instead, because he made this film for Netflix, he was able to do it in a way that allows it to be a personal human story taking place in one small corner of a larger world that is both recognizable and alien.
One of the truths I’ve learned about this business is that the longer a director carries a project with them, trying to get it made, the further they get from the person who first had that idea. That’s why so many “dream projects” end up frustrating audiences. Whoever Barry Levinson was when he first wrote the script for Toys with Valerie Curtin, he wasn’t that same person by the time he made the movie, and so the end result almost feels at war with itself. There’s some of that in Mute as well. Even when Jones made Moon, Mute was already something he was carrying around, dreaming about. It’s clear as you watch the film that Jones loves the world he got to build, and he wants to spend as much time in it as he can, but I can’t help but wonder when we’re going to get a different vision of what our cities might look like in the future. The long shadow of Blade Runner’s production design looms over most science-fiction these days, but it feels like this world isn’t as on-its-last-legs dire as that one, so it could have made that distinction clearer. I wish I got more of a sense of this as Berlin, its own city, and not something so buried in the same influences that it feels like it could easily be in either America or Tokyo.
There are actually two movies unfolding side-by-side here, and one of those stories is more interesting than the other. The way they eventually collide makes the first half of the film snap into a different focus, and the last act of the film goes in a direction that would be impossible to predict from where things begin. The less interesting half of the film focuses on Leo, who was in a terrible accident as a child, costing him his voice. He could have had it repaired, but his Amish parents refused to allow the surgery, instead trusting that God would take care of things. The single strongest choice in the film is eschewing voice-over to keep Leo truly silent. There’s certainly a tradition of voice-over in detective noir films, and considering how strong an influence Blade Runner was, it would not have been shocking or out of place for Jones to use that voice-over as a chance to either comment on the action, or set up some contrast between Leo’s inner life and whatever he was able to express with silence.
The second strongest choice in the film is the way they made Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) look like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s MASH. As soon as he showed up, the film came to life in a different way. He’s a shady underground surgeon who went AWOL from the Army, and he’s trying to buy fake papers so he can smuggle his daughter out of the country. His partner, Duck (a virtually unrecognizable Justin Theroux), is a world-class creep who just gets creepier and creepier as the film rolls on. Cactus Bill is the film’s ace in the hole, the character the film should be about, and Rudd’s work is fascinating. He has that mega-wattage charm that Paul Rudd always has, but playing this character, it feels like an act, a mask that Cactus Bill wears so he can disguise the rage and contempt he feels for everyone and everything except his little girl. There’s an ugly, lacerating wit at work in even his most playful moments, and when he does let the mask slip, Rudd’s very good at playing the curdled desperation that drives Bill.
My biggest problem with the film has to do with the way the stories finally come together, and with Duck’s darkest desires as a character. If you want to tackle certain subjects, there are plenty of ways to do that, but you risk really pushing your audience away if you get it wrong. Predatory pedophilia is absolutely one of those subjects, and this year’s Sundance drama The Tale was a good example of how hard it is to get it right, even with the very best of intentions. I can understand how Jones might see this as a way to create really high stakes for Leo in the film’s homestretch, but it doesn’t work. Leo’s arc is very simple, and it’s been done in a million different detective stories by this point. Guy loves girl, girl disappears, guy goes crazy trying to find her. It all comes down to those answers, and the answers here are muddled in the way they’re delivered. This also feels like Alexander Skarsgård reaching the limits of his range as an actor. If you watch Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, you can see just how expressive and alive an actor can be even without the use of their voice, and Skarsgård never quite reaches that same place.
It’s a shame, because there is a lot of good work in Mute. Clint Mansell is as responsible for the way this world feels as Jones is, and their collaboration continues to yield strong results. Everyone worked at a high level to help make this dream finally come true for Jones, and now that this one’s out of his system, here’s hoping he finds new stories that excite him and tempt his imagination. He’s a skilled storyteller, even if this time out, he got swallowed by the one he was trying to tell.
Running time: 126 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic