Once upon a time (2009) a young upstart named Duncan Jones made a film called Moon, and it was good. A low-key, high-concept film in the best traditions of bleak Seventies' sci-fi. You know: evil corporations and cloning. Standard. Then in 2011 Jones gave us Source Code, a less good but still enjoyable romp of a sci-fi thriller. It offered little that was new, but did it so well that you forgot that it was basically Speed or Under Siege 2 with time travel. Next from Jones came 2016’s Warcraft, and I think the less said about that the better – other than it came about 13 years too late to be relevant.
Now, in 2018, Jones has released Mute, a cyberpunk tech-noir film in the same universe as Moon. But is Mute a return to the good form of Moon and Source Code? Well, is Soylent Green made from high-energy plankton? No.
Mute has been out on Netflix a few months now. And whilst I was certainly looking forward to it in the run-up to its release, the subsequent trashing the film received sucked dry any enthusiasm I had. Not unlike how my hoover sucks my enthusiasm dry anytime my fiancee goes to visit her parents. But I’m my own man, and thus finally decided to watch Mute for myself. A film many most charitably describe as Blade Runner’s retarded cousin.
Our protagonist, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is a mute Amish bartender in a noisy world of robots and dayglo. Leo navigates the complexities of life in this vague dystopia through a series of facial expressions: expressions which can only be described as that face you pull when you’re trying to get your mac on in a club but lack the relevant social skills, so you just sit and stare at them. Though this deal has apparently worked for Leo as he has a bird, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), who is a waitress at a cocktail bar (that much is true). But Naadirah, has secrets. Well of course she does. She has neon blue hair and is moist for a mute Amish guy with zero personality: that hardly screams ‘stable upbringing’.
Inevitably, Naadirah disappears. This prompts Leo to, eventually, descend into the seedy underbelly of 2040’s Berlin and kick ass and take names. Sort of like a Taken film, if the protagonist was the least equipped person in the movie. Meanwhile, two underground surgeons, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), are fixing up the local gangland elements and running an illegal cybernetics implants operation.
Their story is wholly separate to Leo’s, at least initially, but you’d have to be thick to not see the convergence coming. For much of Mute’s run, however, they’re basically the comedy relief. An odd couple in which Cactus Bill is a murdering dad with a seedy moustache, and Duck is a thinly disguised pedo who seemingly models himself off Matthew McConaughey’s Dazed and Confused character.
I can certainly see where the comparisons to Blade Runner come from. Blade Runner is the granddaddy of cyberpunk and, along with Neuromancer and Akira, codified the subgenre. Mute features many of the aspects one would expect from cyberpunk: a grimy, neon soaked crowded metropolis; high tech, low life themes; a brooding old-world protagonist in a tech-noir setting.
But Mute's Blade Runner influences don’t really go beyond the superficial. Blade Runner asked philosophical questions about the nature humanity and technology. Mute, on the other hand, is a character driven affair which could have conceivably been set in the 1950’s and been the same film. Just with more people using the word spiv.
Perhaps, you might read the above summary and think to yourself that Mute sounds quite good. And it isn’t bad per se, just very muddled and bland. It’s certainly not offensive in a Duncan Jones comes over to your house and pisses through your letter box way, as the majority made it out to be. And once it gets going, the film is watchable. Looked at from afar - by a ninety-seven-year-old Peruvian monk who lost his sight five decades ago - Mute seems alright. But when you examine the elements which make up the film, that’s when the cracks show.
Take Leo for example. The film’s opening depicts how he became a mute. You’d think it’d be some great philosophical character thing which leads us to question what it means to be human, otherwise what would be the point? What we actually get is one those commonplace Amish kid having his throat torn out by the propellers of a speed boat events. It was certainly a novel origin story, I’ll give it that. It’s just so weird, and is entirely in aid of some superficial comment on religion, as Leo’s mother (also Amish) refuses him medical treatment. He does become the most ass-kicking carpenter since Jesus, so maybe his mum wasn’t entirely wrong.
Leo being an Amish only factors into him being this Luddite who has to be shown how to use an old 2010’s smart phone. Christ, it’s like visiting my parents. What, exactly, does Naadirah see in him? His inability to talk, his rejection of modern technology, and love for wood carvings, are likely intended to portray him as the final remnant of the human spirit in a chaotic post-human dystopia. But that certainly doesn't come off all that well. His only investment in this world is Naadirah and their dubious relationship. And having the silent protagonist communicate only through facial expressions, and a note pad, leaves Leo as this featureless cipher of a character. Considering he’s played by Skarsgård, who excels at stoic yet multi-faceted characters such as True Blood’s Eric Northman, this is criminal.
Skarsgård’s performance is decent enough within the parameters of the material he has to work with. Strong, silent characters are the man’s wheelhouse, and a mute character is the ultimate extension of the brooding noir detective. But he fails to leave an impression. And the only real impact of his inability to speak is to impede his investigation and turn a 5 minute plot into a 2 hour one. By comparison, Cactus Bill and Duck don’t ever shut the fuck up. They’re like the Italian family at the opposite table in a restaurant.
Rudd is a welcome distraction, even if he simply plays the bad version of The Paul Rudd Character. What that means is that his trademark quips, and general air of likeability, are turned to the same dickish sleaziness as his role in Anchorman. I kind of wish he was the Dazed and Confused esque character so I could legitimately make the joke: “That’s what I love about these Paul Rudd characters, man: I get older, they stay the same way”.
As much as I enjoyed Rudd’s and Theroux's bromance, I would have preferred more of a focus on Leo. This is supposed to be his story, and developing the ‘last human’ aspect of his character (perhaps by finding a way for his mutism to more thoughtfully inform the plot) would have helped to bring the surface level dystopian elements to the foreground. It’d certainly have cleared up exactly whom is meant to be the protagonist. Bill and Duck are given as equal prominence as Leo, and I quite felt like the Romans trying to find the real Spartacus.
The real detriment of giving those two tits equal billing to Leo is that we know who the bad guys are. Leo is introduced to a random procession of shady individuals who, ultimately, have zero impact on the plot. Whilst we’re waiting for some big twist to open up the story, Leo is running through everyone from gay male prostitutes, to his dodgy nightclub boss, to two British wideboys who (because they’re British and one of them is played by Noel Clarke) seem like massive nob ends. Likewise, Naadirah is never anything more than a plot device whose every other line of dialogue is “there’s something you don’t know about me”. I know that: you only have ten minutes of screen time. Dozy cow.
I suppose you can level that criticism at Mute as a whole. It's a meaningless tour through the world of cyberpunk. We're shown a perpetually rainy night-time city basked in blues and purples; obtrusive adverts everywhere. A city filled with robot strippers, eurotrash, and body modifying freaks. Low-lives hide around every corner, and western civilisation is winding down. Synth-heavy soundscapes. There's nothing behind any of the imagery. Mute's like a theme park built for those who have just seen Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner 2049, and Altered Carbon, and thought that it's "so their aesthetic". It's like wearing the t-shirt without having ever listened to the band.
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