A mute, Amish bartender (Alexander Skarskård) must navigate the seedy underbelly of futuristic Berlin to track down his missing girlfriend.
The quirkiness of this film’s plot is spot on for director Duncan Jones, who has been beloved by critics and the broader film community since his debut feature Moon in 2009. He followed this up with the very solid sci-fi mystery Source Code (2011), which essentially cemented him as a sci-fi director to watch. After the misstep that was 2016’s Warcraft, many were eager to see Jones slide back into the genre he does best.
Unfortunately, Mute is another huge misstep. It’s messy and disjointed in its story, aesthetic, characterisation, and even score. It seems like a series of novel and shocking prepositions and ideas weaved together more than it does a film; a mute, Amish bartender; a futuristic-noir mystery; and an overt current of extreme sexuality. In fact, one of the film’s flaws is just how unnecessary all of these elements are. There is nothing in the story that is enriched by the futuristic setting, or the unusual sexual scenarios it presents. This failing is indicative of the film’s biggest flaw; the passionless and thoughtless vibe it gives off. This film doesn’t communicate the care, thought, and loving obsession that Jones’s first two features did, and that’s a crying shame.
Despite being set in this heightened future where everything is excessive, the story and the way it plays out is quite unremarkable. The inciting incident which drives our ‘hero’s journey’ comes and goes, and it’s only after another 15 or so minutes that one realises ‘oh, this is what the movie is going to be about’. At the same time there is a side plot involving Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux that is mostly useless. Its existence is only in place to justify a ‘surprise ending’, or additional conflict.
The actual look of the film doesn’t help either. By this point, the Blade Runner-esque future aesthetic is well-worn in sci-fi and is arguably overdone. But Jones has infused it with other more modern-day aspects as well as an element of ‘trash-chique’ (e.g., gaudy costumes, LED screens with dolphins swimming alongside the protagonist in a lap pool). There aren’t enough of these other elements to make it original, and the Blade Runner ‘homage’ isn’t done well enough to justify its inclusion. So ultimately, the look of the film – which is so valuable and integral to sci-fi – is bland and devoid of personality.
All that said, the surface has barely been scratched on the myriad of flaws in Mute. Alexander Skarskård doesn’t exude the necessary charisma to draw the audience to a character who never speaks, and with the exception of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux, most of the performances are awful. There is an overt plotline related to paedophilia which is never justified through the story-telling and is instead needlessly repulsive. There is also a thread of homophobia that almost seems accidental, and culminates in a homophobic slur which, like the paedophilia, is never justified by the story.
These two elements are so indicative of how immature this film is. There are no taboo subjects in film, and this includes homophobia and paedophilia. But, when they are included just to add flare, or to shock the audience, they tend to tell us more about the filmmaker than they do the film. And in this case, they were the final nails in Mute’s coffin; proving just how thoughtless and devoid of personality this film is.
Irony aside, Mute truly lacks a voice; it has nothing to say, it has nothing to show, and despite being so weird and quirky, it’s Jones’s dullest film.
According to Duncan Jones, this movie is the first project he suggested to Sam Rockwell, but it was considered too big and thus Moon (2009) was made as the first movie.