As a sort-of sequel to Duncan Jones’ excellent 2009 debut, Moon, Mute arrives with more than a little anticipation. It tells the story of Alexander Skarsgård’s Leo, a mute bartender who gets involved with the gangsters of a futuristic Berlin while looking for his missing girlfriend, Naadirah. Having been in production for many years now, the film feels like something of a passion project for Jones, and it is clear when watching it that Netflix gave him a lot of – if not complete – creative control. The result is a film with some great elements sadly hampered by some not-so great, leading to a finished product which is something of a jumbled mess.
But first the good: Jones’ setting of a future Berlin feels like a completely fleshed out, fully realised world. It feels a lot like it’s been lifted straight from Blade Runner and mashed up with other previously existing films, but has enough of its own idiosyncrasies going on in the background to feel unique. This setting is aided by Clint Mansell’s score which, while not quite as good as the one he wrote for Moon, adds to the moody atmosphere of the world being presented. Similarly, the opening of the film works fairly well to establish the relationship between Leo and Naadirah, although it must be said that this is more down to Sayneb Saleh’s performance rather than Jones and Michael Robert Johnson’s screenplay.
Unfortunately, however, these good aspects often seem to undermine the rest of the film; this world-building often comes at the expense of the actual story and, given that Leo’s relationship with Naadirah is the most compelling of the film, it’s frustrating when she soon disappears from the story completely. Her character worked well to interpret the thoughts of Leo, but on his own he simply feels one-dimensional, his muteness appearing to be little more than a character quirk. This is unfortunate following The Shape of Water, in which a similar affliction was used to far greater effect, and in a way which felt far more tied to the story.
The characterisation in the film varies from slightly off to downright bizarre, particularly in regards to the relationship between Paul Rudd’s Cactus and Justin Theroux’s Duck, who are sometimes presented as old friends and sometimes threatening to kill each other, often within the same scene. Their characterisation is wildly inconsistent, and as such it often feels difficult to understand what motivates them, making many of their actions simply feel meaningless. At times it feels like they are being presented as anti-heroes, or possibly even flawed but sympathetic characters, however, they often simply come across as misanthropic and irredeemable. This is particularly pertinent in the case of Theroux’s character, many revelations about whom simply feel ill-judged and completely tone-deaf.
Considering he is mute, a lot of Alexander Skarsgård’s Leo relies on physical performance. While he has a couple of good scenes, most of this performances simply boils down to him looking “serious” (i.e. bored) or “angry” (i.e. slightly less bored), resulting in a protagonist who isn’t particularly compelling and, therefore, difficult to truly root for. Again, this is particularly poorly-timed after Sally Hawkins’ excellent performance as a similarly afflicted character in The Shape of Water.
The film could also have done with a drastic edit; at just over a patience-testing two hours long, it tells a story which could have just as easily been told in an hour and a half. The structure is also fairly repetitive, only really making use of a handful of thinly-sketched locations. Several scenes which are meant to evoke tension simply come across as dull, and the ending in particular drags on long after the plot feels like it’s finished. Often the film reminds us that it is set in the same world as Moon through occasional appearances from Sam Rockwell on the news in what appears to be a far more interesting story than this one. Any other smaller background references simply pull the viewer out of the story, offering a reminder of how much better Moon was than this film.
Some scenes of Mute are directed well, and large portions of the film look great. There are still occasional flashes of the originality which made Moon work so well, but unfortunately they’re wrapped up in a film with very little direction and even less to say. This is clearly a film which Duncan Jones put a lot of care into, making the result even more disappointing. It may not quite reach the depths of Netflix’s other recent sci-fi disaster, The Cloverfield Paradox, but it definitely feels like a wasted opportunity.
Words by Adam Wells