In the first two months of 2018, Netflix has already produced 12 original feature length films. None, however, came with the credibility of its latest release, Mute. Directed by the BAFTA-winning Duncan Jones, who won Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for Moon (2009), and starring Golden Globe winner Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux, Mute is an exciting premise.
Set in the near-future in Berlin - an unrecognisable urban jungle with zero German culture or relevance apart from the odd war or communism reference - Mute follows a bartender, Leo (Skarsgård), as he searches ferociously through the shady bars, brothels, and back alleys for his lost girlfriend. He also happens to be Amish and unable to speak, due to a childhood accident which opens the film poorly and again, with little relevance. In the grand scheme of things, those two attributes are pretty life defining and demand exploration. Yet, they are merely cheap ploys for two reasons: his technophobia is used for exposition regarding the futuristic gadgets and lifestyle (Amish people are known widely to reject technology, though that is not wholly true and especially strange given Leo’s departure from his background), and his muteness is used for explicit storytelling, with every sub-character who Leo approaches indulging in dramatic monologues and revelations.
The last film I saw before Mute just so happened to be an exceptional example of how mute characters can and should be portrayed. Sally Hawkins, playing Elisa in The Shape of Water (2018), exudes personality as she uses a range of body language, expression, and sign language in her characterisation. Alexander Skarsgård as Leo is bland and ponderous, an expressionless, wet drip of a hunky bruiser. Instead of the crucial, learned skill of sign language, Leo uses his natural talent for drawing and wooden sculptures for communication. The latter only proves useful for wooing his infinitely more charismatic girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh, whose character is unfortunately missing for the majority of the film), and impaling people in pursuit of her.
When Skarsgård isn’t on the screen, the film is fast-paced, stylish, and wildly entertaining. When he is, its slow, awkward, and undermines the dark, humorous tone in which the film thrives. Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux run the show as two illegal, American former-army doctors, Cactus Bill and Duck. Throughout the two hours, the moral ambiguity surrounding their true characters is fascinating and they are, at times, utterly hilarious. Paul Rudd proves again to be lovable - who knows how he does it? - despite his character being particularly prickly, and aptly nicknamed Cactus Bill. He’s the type of man who orders an old lady at cafes to stop giving him side-eye while discussing his job of torturing members of an underground Russian gang. But then again, he also has a really cute daughter, for whom he desperately attempts to get fake IDs in order to escape their dank and shoddy lifestyle.
Mute genuinely shocks as well, no thanks to our dependably dull Amish bartender. It is, in fact, a great surprise that such a revered filmmaker and actor combo did not question his greater purpose as the hero during the production process. However, there are enough revelations concerning the more watchable characters, Cactus Bill, Naadirah, and Duck. The film benefits from having little concern with public and critical reaction (courtesy of a Netflix release and the creative freedom it allows) because it pursues controversy in its plot twists. They won’t be tasteful for some, but the shocking moments are effective and confrontational, if not fully developed.
The creative design of the city and everything within it is equally inconsistent. It aspires to the brooding beauty of the Blade Runner films, but with aspects of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), especially regarding the wacky hairstyles, outfits, and robot dancers featuring in Foreign Dreams, the bar where Leo and Naadirah work. However, it lacks the distinction of both those worlds.
Mute is designed by director and co-writer Duncan Jones to be an homage to his late father, the iconic David Bowie, but the overall results are patchy. It is overwhelming and underwhelming in equal measure, unconvincing in how it portrays complex subjects, and suffers greatly because of its tiresome protagonist.