Principal Cast : Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Nikki Lamborn, Ulf Hermann, Florence Kasumba, Gilbert Owuor, Daniel Fathers, Noel Clarke, Robert Sheehan, Sam Rockwell, Robert Kazinsky.
Synopsis: Berlin. Forty years from today. Leo Beiler, a mute bartender, searches for his missing girlfriend, Naadirah, in the rolling city of immigrants where two American surgeons are the only recurring clues.
Director Duncan Jones has proven himself a rare type: fearless and creatively nutritious, the filmmaker has crafted two feature films that stimulate the intellect and one mainstream blockbuster that, well, didn’t, and has proven a witty and delightful social media participant. Mute, Jones’ latest offering, suffers a surfeit of style and intricacy but laments the slithering underbelly of inept plotting and dissolute characters to a fault, running afoul of the old “style over substance” complaint and coming up wanting. It’s a film teetering on bleak greatness, a film ripe with Jones’s creative nutrition, but the overbearing nihilism and unrelenting nastiness will put many off – like it did me.
It’s the near future, Berlin. Amish nightclub bartender Leo, mute since a childhood accident, moons over waitress and lover Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), when she suddenly goes missing. Searching for her, Leo encounters American surgeon and AWOL soldier Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and his partner, paedophile Duck (Justin Theroux), who perform illegal operations for underworld figures in the city. as well as slimy prostitute Nicky Samsek (Jannis Niewohner) and loudmouth hacker Stuart (Noel Clarke), all of whom hold keys to a mystery that will tear them all apart.
At its purest level, there’s a love story buried deep in Mute’s squalid florescence. Blue-haired Naadirah is the focus of much of the film’s story, and Leo is utterly besotted with her to the point he John Rambo’s his way through Berlin to find her, the film’s hard-edged tones and brutalism never allow it to ignite. It’s a shame, because the crux of the story revolves around Leo’s relationship with her, and had this element been less reduced to an afterthought, I think I’d have enjoyed the journey a lot more. I’m puzzled as to why Leo and Naadirah’s arc is so important to Mute’s dystopian flavourings, because for a large portion of the film it feels like Paul Rudd’s Cactus Bill role is more prominent, and this dual narrative doesn’t work as well as I’d have liked.
Mute is unrelenting in its abrasiveness. It’s a film that almost hates itself, it’s so malevolent. It certainly offers the viewer few rewards, other than an implicitly hard-bitten aesthetic and modern noir sense of dispassionate inhumanity. Jones apparently had this story gestating for a decade, and he has described the film as a “spiritual sequel” to his 2009 masterpiece Moon (there’s a small cameo in this one linking back to it that’s really cool, but a sweet blip in an otherwise solemn parade of violence) so I get the love the director has for his vision here. I just didn’t appreciate his vision. His screenplay writhes in salaciousness and human darkness, offering barely a glimmer of hope through Cactus’ young daughter Josie (played by twins Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin) but it’s all too dreary and convoluted to make much sense.
True Blood star Alexander Skarsgard makes a solid go of Leo, having to emote without verbalising, which is tough for any performer. He does well, giving the part his all, although the lack of dialogue for his character makes motivation or complex decision making a touch difficult for us as viewers to grasp. Removing the character’s voice is a brave choice, as is making him a technological aberrant (Amish folk avoid technology, which makes living in this Blade Runner-esque future world difficult when it’s entirely dependent on the stuff) and I think had the film spent more time on the character instead of Rudd’s, Mute might have worked better. Rudd, as the carnivorous, paternally duplicitous Cactus Bill, is terrific, chewing the scenery and offering one of the better screen villains in recent memory. His role in the story is a touch more superficial than Jones’ script gives him credit for – he’s not a Bad Guy in the sense that he swirls his cape and has minor-key music accompanying him on screen, but rather a man desperate to escape Berlin’s clutches and save his daughter. Dark themes pervade his relationship with both Naadirah and fellow surgeon Duck, although their inclusion and resolution never gels with the recurrent mystery of Naadirah’s disappearance. The film tries to throw two large plot arcs into a film only able to really capitalise on one, although I give Duncan Jones props for trying. It just didn’t work.
Supporting roles to Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder), as Duck, Noel Clarke (Star Trek Into Darkness) as one of the nightclub patrons Joe assaults, and Seyneb Saleh (The Lies Of The Victors, Dogs Of Berlin) as Naadirah are decent if underwhelming – Saleh makes for a worthwhile romantic focus for Joe, but her development is minimal and consequently undercooked. The film’s central mystery is revealed far too early for my liking, and the resolution following the revelation is bloody and faux-righteous. I can’t fault Jones for his efforts in trying to bring noir elements to his film, and visually he does a great job, it’s just the story and characters are almost to a fault unlikable and abhorrent, and the oppressive nature of the world in which Mute occurs fails to feel nuanced enough to entrance. Mute owes a lot to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner than almost any other film, although it lacks a coercive Harrison Ford role for audiences to attach to. Skarsgard’s Joe isn’t that, and it’s obvious he was supposed to be.
Despite my antipathy towards Duncan Jones’ story and characters, the film looks amazing. The world building here is fascinating, futurists will delight in the ideas promulgated in this heady, expansive sense of despair. The film is also flooded with neon, shrouded in shadow and dank, dark alleyways, not to mention the decayed sense of dread the inhabitants of this film seem to live with every waking moment. The sullen, resigned nature of Berlin’s nightlife, with its skanky red light districts and deviant, sadistic inhabitants, makes for introspective viewing – if the restraints were lifted, where would society go, do you think? – and Jones’ percipient sense of futurism is clever and probably accurate (sadly). Clint Mansell’s score evokes a sadness within, an electronic accompaniment to a broken-tech world on the brink of self-annihilation. How a child could ever exist in such a world is something that struck me several times while watching. Kudos to Gary Shaw’s cinematography, which drapes the film’s dread with tension and thick menace.
I’m disinclined to think Mute will obtain minor cult status thanks to its disdain for entertainment. Watching the film is an endurance test of torturous violence and generally repulsive behaviour – I know, that’s part of the “world” of Mute’s setting and it’s in keeping with what a dystopian future we might be heading towards, but the frustrating impenetrable-ness of the film is vastly off-putting. Jones’ direction is lethargic, the film’s pacing feels wonky, and I really didn’t like the try-too-hard focus on Paul Rudd’s character instead of building a solid arc for Skarsgard. Gritty, so much so its like blinking through a sandstorm of hackneyed archetypes and interminable unlikable characters, Mute disappoints despite looking amazing. Limited appeal only.