Hello everybody, and welcome to another review! Rather than standing on ceremony, let’s jump right in.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Mute is the latest directorial effort by Duncan Jones, of Moon fame and Warcraft infamy. The film centers around Leo Beiler, a mute son of the Amish turned bartender making ends meet in a dystopian futuristic Berlin. He’s in love with one of his barmaids, Naadirah, and she’s in love with him. Great! Except one day she goes missing, sending Leo on an ass-kicking hunt for her in the underbelly of cyberpunk Berlin.
At the same time, we have two American surgeons living in Berlin: “Cactus” Bill and his buddy Donald “Duck” Teddington. They are ex-soldiers, and Cactus went AWOL during their tour together in Afghanistan. The two of them work for Maksim, the underground crime boss who owns the bar where Leo and Naadirah work, Cactus in particular in the hopes of earning safe passage to the United States for him and his daughter. As it turns out, Cactus and Duck are Leo’s most important clues for finding Naadirah. And before we continue on, I would like to note that Duncan Jones has called this movie his passion project, the film he has always wanted to make.
I will say one thing for the film: it almost gets the whole cyberpunk thing right. I mentioned in my last post about this subject that the focus of cyberpunk is on how ordinary people deal with living in an oppressive, hyper-technological future of mega-corporations and mass surveillance. If you see punks uniting to take down the system, especially if they win, turn around and walk away. But Mute does get it, to an extent: the cyberpunk atmosphere over their society exists as part of the backdrop, and nobody is going to go all freedom fighter on the whole thing. There is also a bit of a noirish air to the entire proceedings, what with the detective procedural-style pursuit Leo finds himself on, and of course all the obnoxious neon lights and coked-up consumerism your cynical hearts can handle.
But when I say almost, I mean that’s as far as it goes. The cyberpunk elements are treated as nothing more than backdrop, and nothing else is done with it. As with Altered Carbon, there was no exploration of any unique cyberpunk concepts with the possible exception of America’s extradition in Germany to nail and jail AWOL soldiers. But that didn’t even require a science fiction setting; the movie could have just as easily explained Cactus’s conflict by saying he would be cuffed as soon as he touched down in the States unless he came there under a new identity, and a movie like that could’ve taken place in the present day. You get to wondering what point there was to the cyberpunk setting at all.
That being said, future Berlin looks good in this film, even if many of the sci-fi concepts are a bit out there, like the flying food drones. More to the point, Cactus’s future Berlin scenes, which mainly take place in the daytime, are pretty and interesting and they make sense – they are what I imagine a futuristic Germany would look like. What’s weird is it feels totally incongruous with Leo’s cyberpunk Berlin scenes, which take place mostly at night and resemble Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. Maybe it’s in my head, or maybe it’s an oversight from the set design, but it seems like the two different characters are walking through two totally different visions of the same city. Am I just seeing things? Let me know in the comments section.
Moving on, there’s the characters. I fell in love with Paul Rudd’s Cactus from the moment I saw him, but especially in his first major scene with Duck, operating on a gangster’s gunshot wounds. He was funny and clever, and by God does the character come across. Paul Rudd really was one of the few great things about this movie. There was a pretty colorful host of characters throughout this film, and even if they were more miss than hit, I found most of them at least interesting. Dominic Monaghan’s Oswald is a personal favorite, if only because it’s funny to imagine Charlie from Lost as a sex addict in a cyberpunk Berlin.
I actually liked our anti-hero Cactus more than mute Leo. I didn’t give a crap about Leo’s missing girlfriend, and Leo himself doesn’t engender much interest. The unfortunate reality is making an audience care about a character that cannot speak is a challenge, and this movie did not rise to it. Paul Rudd’s Cactus, on the other hand, is not only likable, but he’s got an interesting and understandable struggle: he ran from a conflict he didn’t believe in, and he’s gotten himself into the thick of the crime world to pay his way back to the States, but all he really wants to do is get him and his little girl back home.
Then out of nowhere, Jones turns Cactus, the one appealing and likable character, into the bad guy. This development came so out of left field that it felt like a slap in the face. True, Cactus was established from the beginning as being something of an asshole, but until the third act when his entire personality makes a 180 degree turn, nothing about him says “unfeeling, murderous monster.”
The writing is frankly obscene at times, with mood swings that come at you so fast they practically give you whiplash. One moment that comes to mind is when Cactus discovers that Duck has been spying on his child patients, which went a bit like this:
Cactus: “If I catch you diddling kids again, I will break your fucking arms off!”
Duck: “Alright, Jesus, I’m sorry!”
Cactus: “Hold on . . . hello? Oh, Maksim! I’m getting my IDs and I’m getting outta here? Thanks Maksim, I’ll be right there.”
Duck: “Great, let’s go grab a burger.”
I am paraphrasing obviously, but the entire exchange was just that jarring. Understandably, Cactus would feel enraged and disgusted upon learning his friend is not only a pedophile but is acting on those urges. The emotional conflict where Cactus still feels tied to Duck by their past camaraderie in war is also understandable. But the execution of that complex emotion just wasn’t there.
Another example of this comes right at the end of the film. First, we learn Duck has been secretly screwing over his friend by giving Leo clues about Naadirah, then taunts Cactus about it while he’s lying on the floor dying. He then heals Leo’s childhood throat injury so he can speak, and then gets mad at the cured mute for killing his friend? And finally, he attempts to murder Leo after going through all the effort to restore his speech? What!? Again, I can understand if we were supposed to consider the conflicting thoughts running through Duck’s head, with him mourning the loss of a dear friend who he also felt emotionally abused him, but if that’s what was intended, the movie did a bad job trying to unpack all these disparate ideas, if it can be said to have tried at all.
You know what the biggest problem with this film was? It was the wrong movie. Mute should not have been a cyberpunk noir about a mute guy trying to find his girlfriend. This movie was supposed to be a Tarantino-esque thriller featuring Cactus and Duck, two AWOL ex-soldiers stuck in Germany and trying to buy their way home. They have all the good lines in the movie and spend time on the best sets, and I do want to know how they manage to get home. Their brushes with Berlin’s criminal underworld on one side and with the American army on the other would also have made for a good complication. Stick in the interpersonal conflict created by Cactus’s discovery that his former brother in arms Duck is a pedophile, maybe handled better than it was in this film, and you’ve got yourself a compelling drama.
Well, that or Jones should have just made a sequel to Moon instead of simply sticking Sam Bell in a brief cameo.
So much for the passion project. Sadly, I have to give Mute a 3 out of 10 for being a muddled mess, and essentially the wrong movie. It’s unfortunate because this work is in one of my favorite genres, and a film by someone I regarded as a great director. It’s especially too bad because of all the big names: Justin Theroux, Paul Rudd just killing it as Cactus, Dominic Monaghan, Sam Rockwell, and of course Alexander Skarsgård himself. Anyway, thanks for reading. See you next week!
What did you think of Mute? Love it or hate it? Do you think it’s a deserving successor to Moon? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.