Netflix’s quest for cinematic world domination continues with Duncan Jones’s new film, Mute. The director of eerie cult classic Moon and the sprightly Source Code has demonstrated the fallacy of Netflix’s model, however, with a frankly dull science fiction thriller.
Alexander Skarsgård is the film’s central and titular mute, a future-Amish man named Leo who won’t have his vocal chords repaired after an accident due to his religiosity. Extra-marital sex is no problem, mind, but Mute asks for many free passes, so this is hardly a standout oversight. After the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh), he is left clueless and ill-equipped for a manhunt in futuristic Berlin.
From here we are taken on a meandering and senseless path, flitting between Leo’s narrative and that of Paul Rudd’s insane ‘Cactus’, an AWOL American serviceman who is trying to blag immigration papers for himself and his young daughter. Rudd gamely tries to dial up the psychopathy but his inherent likeability makes him sadly miscast, and Cactus’s sadism is boring to watch after a certain, likely early point. He is an Army surgeon and pals around with Justin Theroux as Duck, the corporeal form of Mute’s biggest, but not only, tonal misstep.
Duck is a paedophile. His abuse of young girls is first alluded to, then joked about, and then, inexplicably and jaw-droppingly, moved past. If Mute has any comment on paedophilia, it is not communicated; rather, this seems a trite attempt to court controversy and to generate revulsion for a pair of characters that are otherwise bizarrely directed as if they are the charming rogueish heroes of a cockamamie heist film. Jones has bitten off far more than he can chew with this dynamic, and that folly explodes in his face.
This poor quality of direction can be extended to cover Skarsgård’s Leo, too. Silent characters can express enormous range and depth of feeling – this is not something that can be doubted. Yet, through the safe majority of his scenes, Skarsgård summons a simplistic credulity and confused blankness that will frustrate even the most assured reader of emotions. The principal effect of this uninteresting performance is boredom for the viewer, a reaction provoked by most of Mute.
Seldom have visions of the future been so generic as this, or so lazily sketched. Berlin is a sensible choice of locale – an already forward-looking city with an interesting underbelly, but it is here reduced to a single neon strip of nightlife that resembles tawdry cosplay. Similarly, the idea of technophobic religious cults coping with entirely technological worlds could have prompted diverting questions, were they remotely explored. That the film’s occasional action scenes are similarly bland, flimsily choreographed and choppily filmed, is another mark against it.
Mute is a failure on the part of Netflix, but more pertinently for Duncan Jones. After he palmed the critical failure of Warcraft off onto studio meddling, he was due a chance to prove his independent mettle. What a shame that he has fallen so far short.