Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Dominic Monaghan
It’s a mess is what it is, and one destined to fester in the depths of Netflix Originals vault…
In near future Berlin, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute Amish (!) bartender, is set on a twisting trail of mystery and violence when his girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) abruptly disappears on him. Does her disappearance have anything to do with underground surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux)? And, even if it does, will you care?
Well no, probably not. The fourth film from Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Warcraft) is a massive, confused misfire, a noir pastiche inexplicably set in a near future cyberpunk milieu while being neither particularly “cyber” nor “punk”. More than any other film in recent memory, Mute is a pointless genre exercise, in that there is absolutely nothing in it that necessitates it being a genre film at all; its science fiction elements are all window dressing, none of them explicitly necessary to the plot and, more importantly, the themes being explored.
Neither of which – plot or theme – are in any way clearly discernible, at least without a deeper level of contemplation than Mute does anything to earn. What we’re left with then is the characters, who are either unknowable (Skarsgård) or unlikable (absolutely everyone else); the aesthetic, which is more Strange Days in its retrofitted near-future-ness than Blade Runner but still fairly un-engaging; and the action, which is almost non-existent.
Of course, it’s not meant to be an action movie, it’s a noir, a hypothetical defender might say. Mute has been compared to Casablanca by a number of people who have apparently never seen any other film that might be film noir adjacent except bloody Blade Runner, and that apparently includes Jones himself. There’s actually almost nothing in Mute that rhymes, narratively-speaking, with Casablanca, which has an entirely different setting, plot, theme, and set of characters, including its protagonist. You could make a case for our silent hero here being of a type with other Bogart characters, such as The Maltese Falcon‘s Sam Spade and The Big Sleep‘s Philip Marlowe, going down those famously mean streets, except that Bogie was always watchable and poor Leo, despite Skarsgård’s best efforts, is not. While the idea of a technophobic protagonist having to navigate a high tech/low life setting must have appealed to somebody as an elevator pitch, in the end we’re left with a guy we don’t know doing things he doesn’t understand for reasons that remain purposefully obscure for most of the film.
Jones actually knows this, which is why the story bifurcates, spending as much time with Duck and Cactus Bill, two ex-military medics who make money sewing up mob soldiers, as they just kind of hang out doing stuff until the time ploddingly comes for them to intersect with Leo’s plot in a meaningful (sort of) way. A moment of Pavlovian satisfaction may come when you realise that Rudd and Theroux are doing a riff on Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in Robert Altman’s original M*A*S*H*, the pros from Dover re-imagined as two amoral pansexual hedonists on a tear through future noir Berlin instead of Korean War-era Japan. Then again, it may not.
So what’s it all about? About 40 minutes too long. That aside, It’s a sophomoric work whose symbols aren’t actually attached to any internal system of meaning, but whose pretentious contempt for narrative action means it relies heavily on those same undernourished symbols. It’s a scornful film that seems far too pleased with its own anaemic artfulness, standing on the shoulders of older, better works, yet somehow failing to see any further – or, indeed, as far. It’s a cipher that defies easy analysis not because its language is too complex, but because it’s too haphazard and bereft of meaning altogether. It’s a mess is what it is, and one destined to fester in the depths of the Netflix Originals vault, only recalled when the recommendations algorithm occasionally churns it to the surface to a chorus of “Oh yeah, that fucking thing” from users who, if they value their time at all, should click elsewhere.