Make no mistake, it has been a long, exhausting few years for director Duncan Jones. Beyond the loss of his father, the legendary performer David Bowie, he also mourned the passing of a childhood nanny who served as a motherly figure, while celebrating the birth of his first child at the same time. All of these events served as the backdrop to the making of Mute, his new Netflix film, a concept 16 years in the making, originally intended to be his directorial debut.
But things didn’t work out that way. Mute was a project continually shelved and pushed back. It continued brewing in the back of Jones’ mind as he made 2009’s much-lauded Moon with Sam Rockwell, cementing his status as an up-and-coming auteur in the lost art of “hard” science fiction filmmaking. It was still there when he tested the waters of studio filmmaking with the surprisingly deep Source Code in 2011, ably fusing profound sci-fi themes to what was sold to the multiplex crowd as an action movie. And it was still there in 2016, when his foray into big-budget blockbusters, Warcraft, bombed at the U.S. box office, only to be salvaged by massive Chinese ticket sales. In the course of only three films, Jones had gone from “indie visionary” to “promising studio director” to “failed big-budget prospect”—the Josh Trank Special, if you will. And still, he was waiting on Mute.
Well, now Mute is here, beaming out to the world as the latest “Netflix Original Film,” and it will be difficult for the Duncan Jones fans in the crowd (of which I am most certainly one) to not be perplexed by what the director has delivered. Perhaps it’s the case of an idea that ultimately had too long to gestate, but the results are wildly uneven in tone, production values and execution. The criticism is less that Mute doesn’t know what it wants to be, and more that it seems to emphatically decide what it wants to be every few minutes, only to then change its mind once more. And every time it does so, it’s the audience that is being left behind.
The retro posters for Mute make it clear what kind of associations it wants to evoke in its audience. Hand-painted and gorgeous, they recall classic film noir adaptations of Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-style detective fiction, à la The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, and the throwback posters of films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which themselves mined the adventure serials of earlier decades for inspiration. Along with the glaringly obvious inspiration of Blade Runner, which permeates every single shot of this neon-soaked future Berlin with slavish devotion, the idea it wants to evoke is “hard-boiled noir.”
The trouble is that in execution, Mute provides those things, but it also includes so many other bizarre nooks and crannies that distract from the story Jones is trying to tell about mute bartender Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) searching for his missing lady love (Seyneb Saleh). Sometimes the film is clearly meant to be brooding and serious. Other times it feels more like a screwball comedy, with extended, forced scenes of levity from Paul Rudd in particular. It’s genuinely bawdy and profane in its sense of humor, which clashes bizarrely with sequences of extreme, uncompromising violence. It’s like if Blade Runner had a baby with Inherent Vice, except directorial/parenting duties were split by two people who weren’t allowed to communicate with one another during the shoot.
The issue of violence is particularly perplexing. In some sequences, Mute uses violence, gore or pain as a means to an end, or as a punchline. During early sequences of surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Thereoux) performing their duties, the audience isn’t meant to be repulsed by the rending of flesh and blood. These men are surgeons, using future tech, even if it is in a grimy, unregulated “mob doctor”-style basement. You get the sense that their patients are in no danger. Several of the sequences of violence almost feel like comic pratfalls. And yet in the final third of the film, the sequences of overt violence suddenly take on a deathly serious dimension. The audience is asked to take seriously the deadly physical ramifications of acts that were previously being played for laughs.
The film’s characters are likewise inconsistent. Leo, our protagonist, is something of a cipher—he can’t talk because of a childhood accident, and most of his characterization is ascribed to him by others. We’re told by his girlfriend that he’s “kind” and unlike other men, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be very smart. He’s the sort of “kind” guy who is extremely easily provoked into excessive physical (and public) assaults against strangers—but it’s okay, he only flew into a mindless rage because someone said something unkind about his lady. In the real world, he would end up behind bars after some perceived slight led to a deadly bar brawl. Meanwhile, the characterization of the two surgeons is even more violently dualistic. The generous description would be to say that the film features several characters who are profoundly ambiguous and complex in terms of their morality. The realistic description would be to say that these two characters act in distinctly artificial ways toward one another, flip-flopping personalities and attitudes at the drop of a hat with the casual ease of pure sociopaths. This is a film that contains a pedophilia subplot that receives only a few minutes of attention, because it’s so busy moving on to other matters.
Even the visual aesthetic is inconsistent. There are times when Mute is genuinely beautiful to look at, when the dirty cobblestone streets (urban cobblestones in 2058?) feel full of character and mystery, but you never know if the next shot will continue to hold those fleeting moments of magic. Some of the CGI is waxy-looking, overly shiny and strangely textured, flying cars that look like the badly aged models of the second Back to the Future film. There are entire sequences that feel like they must have been amazing-looking in Jones’ mind, but the budget clearly wasn’t there. Where Moon never looked to be limited by such things, Mute is—its reach exceeds its grasp.
There are aspects of the tug-of-war going on within Mute that are admirable, or interesting. The film’s thoughts on parenting and devotion are complex and intriguing. It has the bravery to cast Paul Rudd in a role that is ultimately atypical to anything else in his career, although it takes a long while to realize this. It even seems to eventually settle into the tone it promised all along—that hard-boiled, gritty neo-futurist noir—but it doesn’t do this with any authority until its last third. A heavy edit might even be able to smooth everything out and refocus attention on the main plotline, but we’ve got to judge the movie we’ve been given.
Mute, unlike its title character, seems to have no shortage of things to say. If only its voices would stop talking over one another, it might be something special.
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Michael Robert Johnson, Duncan Jones
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Seyneb Saleh, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux
Release date: Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, via Netflix
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.