This review contains some spoilers.
I don’t blame anyone for disliking Mute. It’s a strange, often nightmarish and unpleasant beast. It’s clearly scuffed from its long production – director Duncan Jones wanted to make it before his masterful debut Moon, but it was too ambitious at the time. You can clearly tell where different drafts rub up against each other in a way that doesn’t gel. Characters have diffuse motivations that sometimes transform within a single scene. It’s slow, janky, overstuffed at times, and it prods at sensitive subjects in less than subtle ways. And I think I might love it.
As a huge fan of Moon and Source Code (yes, that film is much better than you remember it), I’ve heard Jones talk about Mute for almost a decade. The projects he took on after Moon were largely to help him get the clout to make this strange spiritual successor. I remember reading interviews where he talks about the difficulty of making an expensive film with a silent protagonist. He would touch on the film in Q&A-sessions and mention it in interviews, hopeful that some day he would be able to make this esoteric little film. After the more mainstream-friendly Source Code and Warcraft, I was naturally excited to see what this passion project could possibly end up looking like.
When the film finally entered production, with a great cast to boot, I was psyched. I followed the development and lead-out to the release with anticipation. To me, this was a no-brainer, an easy knockout. Jones was back where he started, but with a more ambitious story and a much bigger scope.
Then came the initial reviews. The film is currently tracking 11% on Rotten Tomatoes, and reviews are calling it a “dud“, “nightmare“, “misfire“, “disaster“. In the space of a single day my feelings towards the film shifted from boundless excitement to morbid curiosity. How could this be this bad? What could have possibly gone wrong?
Passion projects are tricky for obvious reasons. A project you care about, and have swivelled around in your head for most of your career, is going to be very precious to you. It’s easy to be blinded to its faults and less keen to kill your darlings, to tighten the narrative, to find the focus of the story. Mute certainly does fall into this trap on occasion, but I will argue that on the whole it’s a considerably more nuanced picture than many give it credit for.
Maybe I would have felt differently if I’d have gone into Mute still expecting a masterpiece. The film’s marketing leans heavily on the Blade Runner-inspired cyberpunk feel, but this isn’t really representative of the actual film. The future Berlin as depicted here is a lot more down-to-earth than even Ridley Scott’s vision, although it maintains that film’s tactile futurism with some truly outstanding production design.
It also goes for something different story-wise, being neither a hard-boiled detective story, nor a meditative mood-piece. This is the story of a vulnerable man who does not fit into his surroundings, as we follow him desperately trying to find the one person that makes him feel like he makes sense. There’s more running thematically under the surface, but ultimately Mute is a lavishly produced version of a simple story about simple human emotions and behaviour.
The story, in short, takes place in a futuristic Berlin where we meet the bartender Leo. Due to a gruesome accident in his youth, Leo is unable to speak as his Amish mother refused the surgery that could repair his vocal chords. Now, in his 30’s, he works at a scummy club alongside his girlfriend Naadirah, who seems to be the only other person in Leo’s life. One night she mysteriously disappears from his bedroom, which starts Leo on a clumsy, desperate search across the sketchiest parts of Berlin.
The Silent Type
While comparisons have been drawn to Blade Runner (for good reason), the film that Mute reminds the most of is Only God Forgives. On the surface both films feature a protagonist who communicates almost exclusively through blank stares and brief spots of intense violence. They’re also both stories about fundamentally broken people who are trying to be good in a world that struggles to let them. Only God Forgives is considerably nastier, and much more nihilistic than Mute, but they’re stories about human failure among an uncaring, grimy but colourful backdrop. Like Forgives, Mute is often a slow, unpleasant journey where we’re stuck with taxing characters and places. Scenes can go on just a little longer than you want them to, just to make you feel trapped in uncomfortable situations. For the record, I consider Only God Forgives to be a masterpiece, so this is high praise.
Alexander Skarsgård’s Leo is also a significantly more likeable character than Ryan Gosling’s Julian, but he’s just as disconnected from the world around him. He does not match his surroundings, spiritually or physically. In a city that is constantly awash in sounds and colour, he is a silent, monochrome dot. Skarsgård does some amazing work here, and almost every moment where Mute reaches greatness is due to him. It would be very easy to play Leo as a solemn character who purposefully distances himself from others, but Skarsgård instead plays him with warmth. To me, Leo feels like a man who deep down wants human interaction but is restrained from it by his orthodox upbringing and disability.
His link to the world is his girlfriend, which is why her disappearance sends him into a laser-focused search to find her. Mute also uses this disconnect to comment on how modern technology can be excluding towards people with disabilities, like when Leo needs a stranger’s help to use a voice-commanded interface. It’s a small touch, but it works brilliantly to make Leo feel even more detached and unwelcome.
The other main characters are the American surgeons Cactus and Duck, played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux respectively. While they do add a snappier pace to the film’s otherwise slow pace, their story is the root to most of Mute‘s problems. For one, it doesn’t become clear until quite late why the film insists on spending so much time with them, and when the reveal comes it feels pretty anti-climactic. This is also where the script’s long gestation becomes most obvious. While both characters have general goals they’re pursuing, their personalities and relationship quite literally switches from scene to scene.
Sometimes Cactus is an abrasive dickhead, and sometimes he’s the voice of reason. In some scenes he’s goal-oriented to a fault and won’t let anything screw up his plans, while in others he wantonly jeopardises everything for no reason. Rudd tries hard to make this character coalesce into a firm whole, but he’s struggling against a script that doesn’t really know what to do with him. That said, I like the way the film uses the two to casually dump its biggest twist mid-sentence. This is a technique Jones also used in Moon to make the twist less about a shock for the audience, and more about the aftermath and how it affects the characters.
Men Who Hate Women
Theroux’s Duck is another thing entirely. Duck is probably the most controversial aspect of the film, and for good reason. It’s clear from the start that this guy is a creep, and only after a few scenes the audience understands to what degree. Duck is a genius surgeon who spends his days creating artificial limbs for children. He’s also a paedophile who is secretly videotaping those children in the changing room of his practice.
This is obviously an extremely sensitive subject, and many critics and viewers have called this an insensitive, wrongheaded way to tackle it. I am no expert in the field, nor do I have any experience, so I can only speak from the thoughts and feelings that the film evoked in me.
When Cactus discovers the extent of Duck’s perversion, he attacks him and forces him to quit operating on children. It’s an intense scene, where the two friends are violently, emotionally at odds. This is seemingly undercut when the two almost immediately reconcile and go partying together. In a later scene, Cactus and his daughter is once again around Duck, even if Cactus is clearly not comfortable leaving the two alone with each other. You could absolutely make the argument that the film glosses over this aspect, but I think it’s doing something more clever and timely.
Right now we’re living in a moment where men are being held more accountable for sexual abuse and assault than at any time in modern history. At the same time we’re also looking beyond the perpetrators themselves, and looking at those close to them. We ask questions about who knew what these man were, and if they could have done more to stop them. Cactus knows what Duck is, what he’s done, and what a danger he poses. Yet he forgives him almost immediately and allows Duck to go back to normalcy.
That’s not uncommon in the real world. Many responses to the #MeToo movement have been heartfelt defences of those accused. He couldn’t possibly have been as bad as these women claim. I know him, he’s a great guy. And even if he did, he deserves a second chance. This makes the scene where the two embrace so much more revolting. Because vile men are constantly protected and excused by those around them.
I’m not saying that Mute nails this extremely sensitive topic, but the depiction of Duck’s urges is unequivocally damning. Even his comeuppance to Cactus, which stands out as one of the most horrific paybacks in film history, is portrayed exactly as vile as it should be. Duck himself seems to rationalise his urges by using his medical work as a shield. He’s a good guy because he helps these children. His videos are just “a game”. Similarly, Cactus believes his actions are justified by protecting his daughter, even when they’re clearly of a more selfish than he’d like to admit. This film is full of male characters who excuse their repugnant behaviour by hiding behind supposedly pure intentions.
Of course, reality is a lot more grim than that. As the story unfolds we learn what lies beneath, and it’s usually manifested as hatred of, or indifference towards, women. This is a running theme through all plotlines in Mute, but thankfully the film never fetishizes violence towards women. Even Blade Runner went out of its way to make the deaths of female characters beautiful and erotic, but Mute avoids this almost entirely. When we see a woman in danger, we’re seeing the horrific action, not the exploitative result. It’s difficult to watch, but for the right reasons. While the film can’t help but place women in largely incidental roles with very little agency, at least we’re not encouraged to enjoy their suffering.
Beautiful and Broken
There’s a lot more to Mute than a simple Blade Runner clone, or an overambitious vanity project gone awry. It does feel like the work of an auteur filmmaker firing on all cylinders to create his masterpiece, and the cracks between each piece of the puzzle are sometimes too wide to ignore. It’s a janky, strange, occasionally shapeless thing that doesn’t lend itself to quick judgement. It’s a film that’s easy to hate for its overstuffed, ponderous pace, and bizarre eccentricities. It is far from the film I had anticipated for the past decade, but it’s much further away from the disaster I was fearing. There’s just too much good underneath its glitzy surface to dismiss it altogether.
I think Mute is a film that will surprise people in the years to come. Maybe they’ll throw it on to chase some ironic enjoyment out of watching a supposed disaster, only to find something unexpected. Maybe critics will re-appraise it once the initial stink of its weirdness wears of. I hope so. Because Mute is sometimes truly special, a type of honest, crazy film that only a passionate, talented filmmaker can produce. I’ll happily take that over something competent but generic any day.
I don’t care if Duncan Jones ever makes a film as good as Moon. But I hope he keeps making films as bizarre, personal, and fascinating as Mute.