Synopsis – A mute bartender goes up against his city’s gangsters in an effort to find out what happened to his missing partner.
My Take – With the release of the 2009 science fiction film, Moon, director Duncan Jones quickly becomes a name to lookout for, who managed to follow up his success with the very enjoyable Source Code (2011), until it was followed up by his long-gestating and troubled 2016 Warcraft adaptation which ended up being a financial disappointment. However, when it was announced that director Jones would be doing a noir, futuristic, sci-fi, Blade Runner esque film as his next project on Netflix, a film which would also act as a spiritual sequel to Moon, expectations were relatively high. Sadly, the film is not what I expected. After Warcraft: The Beginning, I was hoping this film would be a return to the same kind of hardcore sci-fi that put him on the map, but unfortunately sci-fi is barely involved in the entire story and the way that the story is structured, it clearly has the same kind of problems from his previous big studio film Warcraft. The concept alone had great potential and with director Duncan Jones behind the camera, and the likes of Paul Rudd, Alexander Skarsgård and Justin Theroux in front of it, the film had the capacity to be fantastic. Unfortunately, what was produced ended up being a rather disappointing sci-fi/mystery that focuses too much on its aesthetic and too little on its plot line and characters.
Set 40 years from now in the immigrant city of Berlin, the story follows Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), an Amish mute bartender, who seems to be living with a perfect life with his blue-haired girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), working together in a club owned by the gangster, Maksim (Gilbert Owuor), who is known for his links to underground surgeons, and e-identity fakers. However, when Naadirah goes missing, Leo finds himself searching for her in the crime-ridden underworld of Berlin where he crosses paths with a variety of odd characters including American surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), who perform surgeries for the mob and have their own issues to deal with. With a premise like this I was convinced enough to watch this film on day one of it’s release. That being said, the way this film plays out is one of the most disappointing viewings I’ve had in quite some time. The premise had a lot of potential, however the script remained completely unfocused till the end, while the world building felt inconsistent, different parts of the story also seemed disconnected. With the absolute beating this film took from the critics, I thought I was in for a train wreck. But I was actually pretty impressed with this film after the first 30 minutes. They assembled a good cast; the environment is fun to look at and they set up a decent mystery. It was only when I got past the first hour that the pacing, the weird character motivations and the meandering nature of the story started to get to me. Personally, I like Duncan Jones as a director, and he has proven himself to be a very talented director with his work on both Source Code and Moon, but his blockbuster debut in Warcraft set up a nice world but didn’t expand on it enough to really create any intrigue. This film suffers from those exact same issues, making Jones more in the venue of hit-or-miss director now. With ambitious auteur Duncan Jones given free rein on what he has expressed as his passion project, having concocted the story with childhood friend and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson, it seemed like there was no chance that this film would be dull and dull it most definitely isn’t, as the propulsive story of a man scouring the grimy underbelly of a futuristic Berlin when his girlfriend goes missing manages to keeps the viewer on their toes whilst the gorgeous realization of a Blade Runner-esque tech-future is a pure feast for thine eyes. But with a reluctance to explain almost anything about this world, or provide character motivation for anyone other than the silent bartender Leo, the plot can be complicated to the point of pretentious. You only get a few scenes between him and his girlfriend before she goes missing which isn’t enough to make you care for the next 120 minutes and the rest of his screen time is spent going from location to location gathering increasingly convoluted clues. My biggest problem with the film isn’t that it was long; it was that the pacing of this film can be compared to how fast a glacier floats. We have an interesting setting and mildly interesting characters, but the film just aimlessly wanders like Leo when he’s looking for Naadirah. Maybe it would have been a little cliché but this would have been so much better if they had made some minor edits to the story and made this film take place over one night.
Instead of ramping up the stakes, the film dives into becoming weirder and more contemplative. Through its run time, most of the film remains just confusing, as towards the end character motivations and actions come out of nowhere and remain inconsistent from scene to scene. There are a handful of twists in the last hour that are interesting but they don’t go anywhere or thematically add to anything. Another issue with the film is that it tries to go down some really weird avenues with some characters that just feel misplaced in this film. The gangster element vs. Leo was thin at best. Cactus as a menacing psycho was amusing but he being the woman’s ex-husband was anti-climatic and vague. Apparently she was saving money to get her daughter back but was buried in vagaries and as I have to assume yet again the intent of the third act when we find out Duck’s love/hate psychotic relationship with Cactus. First he puts Leo on Cactus’s trail then when Cactus’s character is killed, he’s mad at Leo for killing him. Also there is nothing wrong with Theroux‘s performance but his character Duck is what does the most damage to Mute’s quality. Unlike Leo or Bill, there is nothing sympathetic or redeeming about Duck but yet he takes up half of the screen-time with Cactus. I would in fact say this is probably one of the worst written characters I have seen on screen that is just uncomfortable to watch. Despite the fact that it takes place in the same universe as director Jones‘s first film Moon, the film never feels like it is as grounded nor makes as much sense. The look of the futuristic world is definitely beautiful thanks Jones‘s artistic eye for awe-inspiring visuals but it feels like it’s just there to be in the background. Where as last year’s Blade Runner 2049 found a way to interwove the use of its futuristic technology into the narrative, the story for this film only makes use of the future tech till the very end and it just feels like wasted potential. Although the narrative of the film is clouded with many issues, there are some redeeming elements to the film. The most notable of these is the immersive depiction of a futuristic Berlin, which is formed through a mixture of neon-lit grungy visuals and an ambient score by Clint Mansell that serves as a perfect accomplice when creating atmospheric moments. Nevertheless, the acting is a big reason why the film is at least watchable. The cast which consists of an interesting bunch who did good with what they are given to do. Alexander Skarsgard playing the main character, the mute bartender, is very good, you can notice how he sticks within the confines of his non-speaking role throughout the film and still make a relatable performance. Paul Rudd really shows his range as an actor since his character is not his usual nice-guy-type roles. As a Rick Blaine-like character who has had it and just wants to get out of the country together with his daughter. He still uses his usual slurs he’s known for from his comedies in this film although his part definitely has more drama and grim than the ones he had played before. Justin Thoreaux too is good in his respective weird role and does the best he can. Seyneb Saleh and Robert Sheehan also give impactful performances. It was also really cool to see Sam Rockwell reprise his character from Moon. On the whole, ‘Mute‘ is an unfortunate yet bold mess which despite an intriguing world at disposal seemed more interested with its lifeless characters and over-complicated plot line.
Directed – Duncan Jones
Rated – R
Run Time – 126 minutes