Mute review Alexander Skarsgard Seyneb SalehYear: 2018
Director(s): Duncan Jones
Writer(s): Duncan Jones, Michael Robert Johnson
Region of Origin: USA

Aspect Ratio: 2.00:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 126 mins

Synopsis: A mute bartender goes up against his city’s gangsters in an effort to find out what happened to his missing partner. (Source)

Tragically, Mute’s biggest problem might be that it has too much to say. After creating two low-key, high-concept gems (Moon, Source Code) and an admirably personal blockbuster (Warcraft) director Duncan Jones has returned to his first love. Originally meant to be his debut film, Jones’ latest languished in production hell for 16 years until Netflix finally decided to foot the bill. But this film has none of the tasteful refinement of his previous work, resulting in an all-or-nothing effort that feels disjointed and scattershot. Talent, vision and heart are definitely on display, but the story’s disparate ideas never fully cohere, despite consistent flashes of inspiration.

Living in futuristic, neon-drenched Berlin, is a bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard). Though he’s strayed from his Amish upbringing, Leo leads a pretty monastic life, reluctant to embrace the technology that ties the city together. He also can’t talk, the product of a near-fatal childhood accident. Still, Leo has everything that he needs in Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), the love of his life. Together, the pair are a bright spot within a pretty grim world. There’s a side of Naadirah that Leo is unaware of, however, and after she goes missing, his world begins to crumble. Desperate, Leo mounts a search for Naadirah, but he may not be ready for what he finds.

To Jones’ credit, the film wears its heart on its sleeve. The first part of the story plays out like a storybook fairytale, setting up a romance that starkly contrasts with the rest of the film’s grit. From here on out, things get progressively bleak. Leo’s odyssey brings him across a pair of black market surgeons-turned-torturers, shady gangsters, a paedophelia subplot and a third act that you won’t see coming. Through it all, however, is an admittedly stirring exploration of parenthood, nurture, nature and hope. As brutal as the film is, there’s an innocence to Leo, who goes from one unfortunate encounter to another without as much as saying a word. In that sense, the film becomes about the emotions which filter the truth of what people do, rather than what they say. It’s sad, then, that a lot of this is buried under some pretty confusing narrative choices, including thematic and character details which seem arbitrary, such as Leo’s misplaced faith and futuristic surroundings. The tone also feels a bit off, with humor that falls a bit flat and emotional beats that are too simplistic.

Mute review Justin TherouxOn the performance front, things are also mixed. Skarsgard’s Leo is fine, for the most part. The character gets a physicality it deserves, with Skarsgard successfully filling out an underserved character. Paul Rudd seems a bit miscast as the dubious Cactus Bill. Rudd does his best, but the one-liners and sleazy demeanor either aren’t funny enough to laugh at, or too bleak to take lightly. It’s a tricky balance that never finds its footing and only hurts things in the long run. The best performance here goes to Justin Theroux, playing a character that I probably shouldn’t spoil. Needless to say, his character will deliberately but a bad taste in your mouth, but Theroux has the chops to bring out complex eccentricity in what might’ve been a generic archetype.

Even as a misfire, Mute is a brave, bold and personal gamble that is fascinating and mostly engaging. As I said, it has its heart in the right place, and can be commended for what its trying to say, it just doesn’t have the clarity and focus that it needs to really resonate. Here’s hoping that Jones continues to grow as a unique voice, next time scaling things back to a sharper point.