Duncan Jones first burst onto the scene in 2009 with the acclaimed Moon, a clever film that featured a brilliant central performance by Sam Rockwell, and proved that you didn’t need a big budget to make engaging, cerebral sci-fi. But for almost a decade prior to Moon, Jones had been working on a film called Mute. Following Moon’s success, the buzz surrounding Jones’ passion project began to grow, and never stopped even as Jones went on to direct bigger pictures (2011’s Source Code and 2016’s Warcraft).
So when Netflix announced that they’d release Mute as part of their growing effort to acquire more original content, a lot of people were excited, myself included. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Jones to delve into more original ideas and content, free from studio meddling.
Set in not-too-distant future Berlin, Mute is a noir with sci-fi trappings about a mute bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) who descends into the city’s seedy underbelly to find his missing girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). His search brings him into contact with all manner of unsavory types, from freaky sex workers to violent pimps and gangsters. But arguably the most unsavory are two American ex-military doctors, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), who work for a local mobster stitching up gangsters and torturing traitors — and who have their own agendas that could spell doom for the guileless Leo.
Mute is an interesting film that features all of the characteristics of a long-gestating passion project, i.e., it’s chock-full of ideas and idiosyncrasies that you’d probably never see in a mainstream studio title. How else do you explain the fact that Leo isn’t just a bartender, he’s also an Amish woodworker? Or that Cactus Bill struts around Berlin with a big porn star mustache while packing an even bigger Bowie knife, and drives a souped up dune buggy painted with the Stars and Stripes?
I’m glad that Netflix is willing to give directors the freedom to go all out on passion projects, leaving all quirks intact. But ideas and idiosyncrasies do not automatically a good movie make, and Mute is not a good movie. To be fair, I was never not intrigued simply because I had no idea where Jones was going, but in the end, I never found Mute affecting or emotionally interesting. (Though it’s safe to say it’s the only film I’ve ever seen with an Amish bartender/woodworker, so that’s something… I guess.)
Despite possessing a wealth of promising ideas, Mute never does anything with them — they don’t seem to serve any larger purpose. Take Leo being Amish. I suppose you could argue that particular biographical element was intended to make him more sympathetic, i.e., a wide-eyed innocent staring down the wolves of Berlin’s underground who slowly loses his innocence in a dangerous and hopeless quest. But in execution, it comes off as more gimmicky than anything else, and adds no real depth to the movie, or much insight into Leo’s character. It feels more like Jones threw that detail in there to make Mute more “unique” without giving much thought to how it fit within the broader narrative.
Two other elements added to my frustration with Mute. First, there’s a considerable amount of world-building in the film, from the various technologies that appear (e.g., drone delivery systems, smart refrigerators, flying cars) to the occasional references to U.S. military activity. But Jones seems to have little interest in any of it, and so it just remains window-dressing. It doesn’t help that Mute’s dystopic Berlin setting, with its constant rain, neon, and flying cars, constantly brings to mind Blade Runner, arguably one of the finest examples of both cinematic world-building and idea-driven filmmaking.
Second, moments of visual brilliance are sprinkled throughout the film. When we first see Leo in Berlin, he’s swimming in a neon-drenched pool — a striking image made all the moreso by Jones’ subtle inclusion of on-screen information. Later, Jones simply but effectively captures Leo’s determination via a series of time-lapse shots that follow Leo through a massive library as he searches for information. If Jones’ direction had been more consistently stylized or flamboyant (for lack of a better term), then maybe Mute could’ve been one of those movies where the style becomes the substance, where the visual flair ably makes for up the narrative lag — or at least, it becomes a gaudy guilty pleasure.
Duncan Jones certainly deserves some kudos for remaining determined and never giving up on his passion project. It’s tempting to wonder what might’ve been had he been able to make the film earlier, or if it hadn’t been altered and rewritten so much over the years. But the fact remains that the version of Mute that Jones actually made and released represents a significant misstep for the talented director.