Director: Duncan Jones
Screenplay: Michael Robert Johnson & Ducan Jones
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux
Review by Evan
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Cyberpunk genre. Between Blade Runner 2049, Altered Carbon, and now Mute— fans of the sub-genre are not going without. Following suit of the other two, Mute is a noir set to the backdrop of a technologically advanced, but atmospherically dark and seedy world. Being a big fan of Jones’ previous works, like Moon, Source Code, and even the flawed Warcraft, I was looking forward to seeing his particular spin on it. Unfortunately, while Mute does do some things differently, they often times feel out of place. They ultimately muddle the equation of mystery while making it harder to follow and invest in.
The film opens with an oddly similar shot to one that was featured in Altered Carbon— a body floating in a lake. The body is that of a little boy. Badly injured by a boat’s propeller on his neck (particularly where his voice box would be) and torso. A family pulls him onto the boat, and you see his Amish sister on the shore. Cut to the hospital, and the rest of his family refuses their treatment, insisting “God will heal, Leo,” and boom, we have a title.
Fast-forward 30 years later, and Leo (Skarsgard) has a pretty modest life. A bartender at a Robot Strip-club doesn’t sound like the worst gig, as he works there along-side Naadirah, his blue-haired girlfriend. The two characters are very clearly in love illustrated by some affectionate scenes that did feel a little shallow. All good things must come to an end in a grimy world such as this, and Naadirah disappears.
Meanwhile, we have Cactus Bill, played by Paul Rudd and his exceptionally large handlebar mustache, and the blonde-haired Duck (Justin Theroux). Both seem to make a living off performing criminal surgeries for those willing to pay. So a question arises, do these guys have something to do with Naadirah’s appearance? Will they cross paths and play a part to help Leo along the way?
When writing the screenplay, I’m not sure Jones and Johnson realized that the secondary plot is far more interesting to watch unfold. Part of that has to do with the performances. I’m surprised that they didn’t realize that the two storylines feel like two completely different films, tonally. Leo’s plot feels fairly solemn and serious as he searches for this woman he holds very dear. Then we have Cactus and Duck with a dynamic not very different from that of a buddy-cop movie, cracking jokes, at odds with each other sometimes, even if much of their humor is offbeat and dark. Skarsgard gives a relatively vanilla performance here. Much of his acting has to come just through looks. All of which cycle between worried puppy eyes, and angry stares. He does get a few genuinely sweet moments, but they don’t outweigh the majority of the performance.
Theroux gives an okay performance as a gross character. His character “quirks” involve lusting after really young women, and videotaping underage girls. I’m not sure why this had to be a thing, as it doesn’t even service the plot. Then we have Rudd, who definitely gives the best performance of the lot, in an unexpectedly dark role for the actor. He comes across as the most human, at times comedic yet sleazy, other times outright terrifying. It’s a magnetic performance from an actor who we usually know for playing the likable average guy. After this, I’d definitely like to see him tackle more serious material in the future.
Tonal issues aside, the biggest thing that Mute struggles with is its uneven pacing. The beginning feels far too slow, with many elements only coming together about halfway through the film. By the time that Leo starts making connections, it feels a little too late. You can only keep the audience in the dark so long before they start to check out. The ending then hits us with so many story jabs (some of which worked, others felt forced) at once, that I couldn’t help but wonder why they weren’t more spaced out.
While the narrative mechanics of the film won’t have many singing praises, not all is a misfire. The production design is quite solid, with neon painted appropriately across buildings and decorating sketchy alleyways. Even though the film takes place in Berlin, It feels much smaller in scope than other tales in the genre, but that’s not a knock to its effectiveness. Tech also works into the world fine enough. Although, I would’ve liked to see a few more examples of it being used in interesting ways.
On top of all this, Clint Mansell lends his talents to the film, scoring an inspired futuristic soundtrack that really captures the setting. Will it be heralded as one of his best? Not very likely, but Mansell did not slack off in helping add to the mood of Jones’ vision.
Verdict: SKIP IT. Not even the power of Paul Rudd’s mustache can save Mute from its dragging pace, tonal conflict, and the strangely characterized inhabitants of slimy cyber-berlin.