Mute was directed by Duncan Jones (Whistle, Source Code), written by Jones and Michael Robert Johnson (Late Shift, The Frankenstein Chronicles), and stars Alexander Skarsgård (The Northman, Hold the Dark), Paul Rudd (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Our Idiot Brother), Justin Theroux (Bumblebee, Inland Empire), Robert Sheehan (Cherrybomb, Umbrella Academy), Gilbert Owuor (Taharuki, Montana Story), Jannis Niewohner (Godless Youth, Ruby Red), Dominic Monaghan (Atomica, Soldiers of Fortune), and Seyneb Saleh (Munich Games, Toubab). It follows a silent man as he navigates a future Berlin to find his girlfriend, who has mysteriously disappeared.
The Plot: Duncan Jones has always been a capable director, but it’s worth noting that his best films didn’t come to be via his penmanship. When viewing Mute, whose plot can also be attributed to Johnson, it becomes apparent why this pattern exists.
2048 Berlin may sound like a place for a rather unconventional noir narrative to unfold, but for Leo (Skarsgard, doing well with a difficult role), the city has little bearing on anything except his girlfriend, waitress Naadirah (Saleh). It at first seems like Jones and Johnson have a bright idea for Mute, with several characters seen together before key events take place, but it soon becomes a typical mystery plotline, as Naadirah goes missing right after admitting to Leo and another coworker, Luba (Sheehan) that she has a financial issue and can’t afford to be in trouble with anyone, much less her boss, Maksim (Owuor, struggling with a Russian accent).
A deeper inspection of the underworld soon follows, but Mute doesn’t have much to say about its sights, with old plot beats like a distant observer frequently unseen to Leo, a criminal web for him to untangle, and an emergency detour to manage his health. The latter comes courtesy of medics Cactus (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux); it’d be fine enough if Jones continued the plot without hindrance to gloss over the familiarity, but instead of sticking with Leo and his leads like Simsek (Niewohner) and Oswald (Monaghan), the director takes a turn into the unnecessary via a subplot about the medics’ turmoil.
Adding a second plot that doesn’t gel with the first seals the fate of Mute’s story. It’s passable on its own, but annoyingly long-winded when doubled up.
The Characters: Vivid characters help to mitigate the emphasis on making what’s old new again, but the script went overboard with some of its principal cast, turning leads and personalities into nasty caricatures that the audience is supposed to connect to.
Essentially a Luddite, Leo was raised Amish and tries to remain so, even in a world that doesn’t accommodate that system. He could easily regain his ability to speak (this wasn’t taken in the first place due to the technology related to the surgery) but chooses to stick to his lifelong lifestyle. Leo is an easy character to like, as dresses sharp and keeps himself present by swimming (thereby overcoming past trauma) and carving and has a low tolerance for anyone interfering with Naadirah. Mute presents interesting obstacles by forcing the character to use at least some form of modern technology, which, with a solid actor in the role, rounds out an enjoyable protagonist.
Cactus and Duck are the opposite in terms of likeability and development, as the pair never shut up when they’re on screen. I suppose this makes Leo’s lack of dialogue more endearing when this was the alternative. Cactus is the tolerable one amongst the partnership, as he just wants to make enough money to leave Berlin with his daughter and will put his discomfort on hold via plenty of alcohol and voicing his grievances. He’s not exactly a great father, as he leaves his daughter in the custody of strippers, but he means well. Duck is far less of a character, as he simply leers at his subjects and young girls, leaving Theroux without much to do aside from acting creepy for his unnecessarily elongated screen time.
Naadirah, despite not appearing for the majority of Mute after the 25-minute mark, makes some degree of impression. She loves Leo, but being with a man like him has its negatives – like his immediate violent defences and a communication problem if they’re not face to face. Not much can really be told about her, given the conceit, but she and Leo make for interesting characters in a one-dimensional land of ugliness.
The Mystery: Plenty of options for detective activity reside in the setting and with the characters, but Mute has a rough time doing anything that would elevate or even integrate either aspect into its spiral, leaving it painfully average.
At least the movie has a good eye for suspects, even if some are more obvious than others. When Leo and Naadirah are dealing with the day to day, the script carefully places its cast within the club. With Cactus, Luba, and some of Maksim’s shady employees all acquainting themselves for future reference. It’s a good start, but the act of getting Leo on his path is clunkier than that, as his talk(?) with Luba is vague to the point of causing contrivance, as Mute soon supplies Leo with a texting pal that effectively makes this scene moot.
Spiralling downward is a middling affair. Though there’s a creative instance of finding Naadirah’s last known associate via charcoal rubbing an absent note, the movie soon becomes rather one-note, with the distressed lead going door to door for clues that never lead to dead ends and somehow learning how to use technology that he has previously refused to even look at to do so. Though there are moments of genuine intrigue, such as Simsek’s business agreement with Naadirah that opens another door, the movie never finds its own flatfooted quest.
By the time the hour mark has passed, the audience has spent more than enough time around Mute’s characters to figure out who amongst them is involved in the disappearance. A reveal that effectively makes the entirety of Leo’s search redundant sends the discoveries found throughout the picture into the far reaches of one’s memory. The journey has its moments, but the beginning and the destination are entirely forgettable.
The Technics: Jones has always been a director with a tremendous level of visual and thespian control, able to wring strong performances and engaging looks to all of his prior films. That control remains, but perhaps in too great a quantity.
An obvious comparison to Blade Runner and its sequel is in order, as Mute summons the cold, wet streets drenched in neon advertisements and covered by flying cars, which are solidly captured by cinematographer Gary Shaw (1 Mile to You, Ill Manors), but there’s a mite more sleaze in future Berlin than in future Los Angeles (hard to believe, I know). While the architecture gives some texture to the world, it’s ultimately too similar to its influences – sans the unique makeup – to stand on its own. Clint Mansell’s (Black Swan, The Wrestler) score also lives in the shadow of Evangelos Papathanassiou’s work for the cult classic.
Pacing and tone are equivalent to a shot in both kneecaps for Mute, as the film runs 125 minutes, of which every second is felt. While the rarely-seen cyberpunk aesthetic can keep the eyes occupied, the jarring tonal shifts from Leo’s dive into the depraved don’t mesh with the more lighthearted handling of Duck’s blatant pedophilia. The longer it lingers the worse it gets.
Mute boasts striking, albeit derivative visuals, a terrific leading character, along with a modestly engaging first 40 minutes; Jones and Johnson though, don’t have anything prepared for what comes after, even after 16 years in development. Creativity has been muted.