Mute tells unmotivated story that bores for dragging runtime
There sometimes comes along a film that grips viewers and stays behind in the mind long after the lights come back on. These are the stories that are visually arresting, earth-shaking or emotionally destructive. For these and other reasons, viewers cannot help but think about the plot of the film, looking for the next opportunity to revisit and reconsider it. Then there are the disappointments.
Netflix’s film Mute is a science fiction story directed by Duncan Jones, a director known for Moon and Source Code. The plot is noir-like, as a man searches for a woman in an unforgiving city. The world exists in a cyberpunk future like that of Blade Runner, full of advanced technology that feels old and worn out.
Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish mute trying to find his missing girlfriend, Naadirah, played by Seyneb Saleh. Leo’s storyline is crossed with that of Cactus Bill, a U.S. army surgeon gone AWOL, played by Paul Rudd. Bill is trying to leave Berlin, the setting of the story, with his young daughter.
Because Leo is Amish, he prefers to stay away from technology. The film reflects this by following a prologue with an introduction of the world from a sealed-off inside. There is impressive restraint shown as the camera stays inside Leo’s apartment and only little hints of the outside world come trickling in: beams of light, sounds of vehicles. The reveal of the world afterward makes the case to stay inside.
Mute’s world is dull and feels done to death. This type of future has been seen before and in much better quality. Looking at last year’s Blade Runner 2049 and its ability to squeeze beauty out of Roger Deakins’ photography from all angles of the city, it almost seems futile to attempt any similar future reality afterward.
Mute tries and provides a production design that feels extremely lacking in the guise of an unmemorable cityscape.
The easily forgettable nature of this film is what stands out most. At one point, Naadirah asks a co-worker about Leo: “Why wouldn’t I love him?” The real struggle is in understanding why Leo would love her or why their relationship matters. The emotional storylines are not compelling and when after over a half-hour, the story finds its footing in the search for a missing lover, it is hard to feel that the search was warranted. A premise built on the faulty foundation of a weak relationship cannot stand.
Jones tosses a couple of cameo moments into his film. These come in the way of TV clips where multiple people, all played by Sam Rockwell, are seen arguing in court. This is in reference to the director’s film Moon, which involves a plot of Rockwell’s character, Sam Bell, being cloned repeatedly on a space station.
In Mute, the clones appear briefly, arguing over each other during a court proceeding. These inserts are far more intriguing than the surrounding story and distract from the film with the possibility of a story that should be significantly better.
Leo’s quest is what bores the audience members, but it is Bill’s storyline that confounds them. Bill is made to be a sympathetic character, caring for his daughter and doing whatever he can to escape Berlin. He also has a wise-cracking sense of humor, a ridiculous mustache and the scoffing charm of Rudd’s characters from works such as Wet Hot American Summer and its various spinoffs. Bill’s relationship with a fellow surgeon, Duck, is what raises eyebrows and questions.
There are hints throughout the movie that build up toward the revelation that Duck is a pedophile. When Bill realizes this, he attacks his friend and threatens him, but then continues with their friendship, supporting Duck and protecting him from any repercussions. There is an imbalance in the characterization of Bill, as he goes from being sympathetic to being willing to accept a deceiving and predatory man. Bill does reproach his friend, but they are still close afterward.
The story itself lacks a sense of motivation, even beyond the dull relationship that anchors it like a constant dead weight. The story goes from location to location as Leo follows clues, and yet, often there is no sense that the clues are directly connected.
As Leo makes new discoveries, his next steps do not feel related to what he has just found out. Instead, it becomes a small pleasure to have the story center on Bill, but the pleasure is still small.
Mute is a boring film. Its 126-minute run drags on for longer than it should, taking too much time getting started and even more time ending.
The conclusions drawn by the characters in their working through clues and trails are unreasonably exacting, with little clear reason for them to be so. The film centers on a mystery that waits for an extended time to be solved. When it is resolved, viewers are unclear about how it happened.
The characters fall into place because they must, but not because of any clear motivations. The most enjoyable moments are oddly spliced in, as Rockwell’s cameos indicate the quality of the surrounding film: inexplicable, strange and not telling the story it really should be telling.