Duncan Jones’s dream project Mute arrives on Netflix, and typical of the streaming service it’s barely making a ripple. That’s disappointing given the years he has spent wanting to make it, and the years we as his fans have spent hearing about it. The promise of a return to the kind of intelligent, immersive sci-fi world he was able to create with Moon and the more mainstream Source Code goes sadly unfulfilled, though. Mute is, by any measure, a disjointed, boring, and derivative mess that shows none of the special qualities that we’ve previously seen from Jones and reasonably expected to find here.
There is initially a flash of inspiration, as we see a young Amish boy floating in water, blood streaming from a nasty neck wound. The doctors can save him and his voice, but his parents trust in God to heal him not the ways of modern medicine. They’re wrong, of course, and the boy, named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), grows up having never been able to utter a word. It’s now twenty years later and Leo is a bartender in Berlin, a bustling place of poor working stiffs, AWOL servicemen, and criminal lowlifes. Leo doesn’t have much; the influence of his conservative Luddite upbringing, but he does have Naadiyah (Seyned Saleh), his loving blue-haired girlfriend with a big smile and mysterious past.
“You don’t know me, Leo”, she tells him at one point, and it’s clearly true because when she goes missing from the shady club they both work at, the truth about who she really is begins to emerge. To find her, Leo must play gumshoe and work his way through one seedy character after another.
A noirish detective tale in a future setting invites comparison to Blade Runner, but also does Jones’s interpretation of Berlin, a deep blue cross-cultural metropolis full of dazzling billboards and grimy street corners. Jones doesn’t really bring anything distinctive to give this world its own flavor, though, and there’s nothing in the story that makes it clear why it needs to be set in the future at all. The visual uncertainty is matched only by the narrative confusion, as Leo is barely the star of his own movie. While his quest to learn of Naadiya’s secret past and her current whereabouts is one part of the story, given equal time are the antics of Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd, sporting a Burt Reynolds ‘stache to die for) and Duck (Justin Theroux), two AWOL militarymen who now serve as surgeons to the criminal underworld. Bill is down for the dirty work as long as it gets him money for IDs to escape from Berlin along with his young daughter. The two come off like former college fratboys, with Bill quick to murderous anger and Duck…well, he’s creepy in ways best left unsaid.
It’s possible that Jones realized the wordless Leo was hardly the most compelling antagonist and went too far in the other direction with Cactus and Duck, but they practically take over the entire film. The problem is they are as unsympathetic as Leo is dull. Supporting characters aren’t much better, drifting in and out without leaving much of an impression. Jones would have been better off sticking with Leo but focusing on the one aspect about him that actually is intriguing, and that’s his Amish upbringing. He’s like a man out of time, a figure of peace in a world where men like that are in short supply. When Leo comes to violence, and those times do happen, he seems as shocked about it as anybody.
It’s hard to get a handle on what Jones actually wants Mute to be about. It lumbers along to an unusually savage finale that should give parents nightmares, then concludes with a dedication to Jones’s own parents. Was this supposed to be a movie about raising children and I just missed it? Maybe that’s the case, but more likely that Mute is Jones getting out every idea he ever had for this pet project whether they make sense or not. If anything, Mute serves as a reminder that some dream projects should remain on the shelf.