In Netflix Original Mute, a voiceless bartender’s search for his missing love takes him into the dark, criminal underbelly of a future Berlin. Directed and co-written by Duncan Jones along with Michael Robert Johnson, it stars Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux.
It took Duncan Jones 15 years to get Mute made, and you have to think that there was a very good reason the screenplay stayed buried in a drawer for so long. As usual, we have Netflix to thank for this. The streaming giant has made a business model out of rehoming creative castoffs. They’re seemingly willing to greenlight any old nonsense. In this case, the beneficiary is an uninspired and supremely misguided slab of sci-fi noir in which the only big idea being raised is simply, “What if Blade Runner was ****?”
Set in the neon-drenched future-fantasia of a Berlin where the cars fly and the vending machines are voice-operated, Mute should have been Jones’s redemption. It’s easy to forget that this is the guy that made 2009’s excellent sleeper hit Moon – mostly because he also made the workmanlike time-loop thriller Source Code in 2011 and the fetid heap of Orc dung, Warcraft, in 2016. Reportedly intended as his debut all those years ago, Mute, if we lived in some kind of parallel universe where his career went the way it was supposed to, might have been his magnum opus. The thing isn’t lacking in ambition, but the deep end of Jones’s imagination is, as it turns out, not a pleasant place to be, even if you’re only treading water.
Our kinda-sorta hero is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a voiceless Amish bartender at Berlin’s premier robot strip club circa 2058. That he’s Amish actually matters. The film’s opening scenes see him floating in a lake as a boy, badly injured by a motorboat propeller. He’s rushed to hospital in time to save his voice, but, you know, Amish, so his parents refuse the operation.
As an adult, Leo communicates mostly through a notebook, which is where he scribbles dopey love notes to his blue-haired cocktail waitress girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). Their relationship lacks words, and also any sense of intimacy, connection, or chemistry. When she went missing I barely noticed. But Leo can’t live without his pen pal, so he blunders into Berlin’s seedy underbelly with nothing but a hand-whittled bedpost and an insatiable desire for more weird sex.
Without dialogue to reveal anything about Leo as a man, there’s nothing in Mute’s screenplay to suggest that he might be smart, resourceful or skilled enough for this kind of detective work. Then again, there’s nothing in Skarsgård’s performance to suggest that Leo is a human being. The gangly Swede shrugs into ill-fitting, hand-sewn suits and meanders through the cityscape in a way that made me wonder how the Amish felt about lobotomies.
Thankfully, Leo cedes about half of the narrative’s attention to a pair of foul-mouthed ex-military American surgeons. Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd in a Hawaiian shirt and a handlebar moustache) and Duck (Justin Theroux in a young Steve Jobs wig) run a tasty operation patching up gangsters for Maksim (Gilbert Owuor). They have something to do with Naadirah’s disappearance, as does her pansexual partner-in-crime, Luba (Robert Sheehan), who also moonlights as an escort in a Berlin bordello so tame that Cactus often leaves his young daughter there to be babysat.
Whatever Cactus and Duck – or anyone, for that matter – have to do with the wider mechanisms of Mute’s plot is anyone’s guess. The film is tonally and narratively inconsistent, building to a series of reveals that don’t satisfy or make much sense. This inexplicable barrage includes perhaps the most sadistic comeuppance any villain has received in recent memory, which only stings because it’s heavily predicated on the outcome of an unseemly subplot about one of the characters being a nonce.
As always, I feel like a bit of a prick for criticising the work of Duncan Jones. The five-year hiatus he took before Warcraft was a difficult period marked by his wife’s battle with cancer and his father’s death, and that his foray into tentpole fantasy-filmmaking was savaged by critics – including me – and bombed miserably at the US Box Office didn’t exactly make for a rousing comeback. In a way, this was supposed to be it. Netflix gave him the resources to express himself in the way he wanted to, which is why Netflix Original Mute ends so unsatisfyingly on a dedication to his parents after 90 minutes of gratuitously self-indulgent, congested tripe.
If Mute were a better film, it might be a shining example of the Netflix machinery rumbling along as it’s supposed to; the fairy godmother of visionary filmmakers frustrated by the studio system. As it stands, it’s an indictment of how the platform’s lack of oversight and seemingly bottomless pockets continue to grease the palms of creatives who, increasingly, can’t be bothered to deliver work with an ounce of integrity or interest or even the baseline level of basic competence that a big studio would demand.
If only Duncan Jones had given Mute a voice, and something to say.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.