February was not a good month for Netflix, and perhaps no single movie sums up the rising studio’s mixed results than writer-director Duncan Jones’ passion project, Mute. After Moon and Source Code, his previous two science fiction flicks, I for one was genuinely anticipating what original endeavor Jones embarked on next. Combining a stellar cast in Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux with Jones’ thrillingly introspective writing, I was admittedly expecting nothing short of excellence. Unfortunately, this hope left me bitterly disappointed. Mute is an utter failure on all fronts, and most certainly the worst movie I’ve seen in quite a while. From atrociously dull and offensive writing to uninspired acting to derivative production design, I really can’t think of a single thing I actually enjoyed about the film. Indeed, I was tempted quite a few times over the course of its unnecessarily long runtime to turn off its painfully uninteresting mess and do something less of a chore.
Perhaps what I found most personally disappointing about Mute was its acting. Alexander Skarsgård delivered a truly phenomenal performance in HBO’s miniseries Big Little Lies as an abusive husband. In that show, Skarsgård brought a refreshing multidimensional take on the common paperback trope of a wife-beater, conveying equal doses of toxic rage and sincere vulnerability. Here, he plays an innocent, mute Amish man looking for his blue-haired girlfriend after she mysteriously disappears.
Maybe it was just my expectations getting in the way, but I found Skarsgård’s character remarkably lacking in emotional variety. Part of what made his character in Big Little Lies so compelling was the use of his eyes and voice. In Mute, he only has his eyes to work with, and almost exclusively uses them to show off a childlike purity that’s plain goofy in the context of the movie’s bleakly oppressive world. It probably doesn’t help that Clint Mansell’s score is tacky and overly-sentimental, making the film’s darkest moments eccentrically off in the broadest sense.
If Skarsgård’s character seems like he belongs in a different movie, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s belong on a different planet. Rudd and Theroux play Cactus and Duck, two rambunctious surgeons involved with the criminal underbelly of futuristic Berlin. Cactus wears a laughable handlebar mustache and wields a Bowie knife; Duck dons ridiculous long blonde hair and is a pedophile. Their relationship is bizarre and never quite explained. Duck makes disgusting comments about young women the entire film before Cactus realizes his pedophilia. Once he does, he threatens Duck once and then pretty much forgets about it. In fact, almost immediately after cornering Duck with his Bowie knife, Cactus and him go out for a fun night of burgers and beer.
I’m really not sure why Jones decided to make Theroux’s character a pedophile, or more importantly why he decided to shrug off the fact in such a insensitively nonchalant manner. Either way, the choice elevates the film from merely a bad experience to an offensive one, and is indisputably its worst mistake. To top things off, both Rudd and Theroux’s characters are cringe-worthy, unlikable, and given absolutely atrocious dialogue. I really feel bad for both actors, in addition to Skarsgård, as they definitely deserve better roles.
If the acting wasn’t bad enough, Mute’s plot and pacing more than make up for it in making the film a truly unpleasant experience. Mute tries to switch back and forth between following Skarsgård’s Leo and Rudd’s Cactus for equally long periods of time, effectively throwing away any semblance of consistent tone and mystery. It’s one thing to have two main characters, it’s another to associate a quiet moody tone with one and an raucously loud one with another.
Furthermore, the movie is trying to be a mystery, seeking to find out what happened to Leo’s girlfriend. By introducing us to Cactus in the beginning, the film removes the necessity of all the tedious detective work Leo does throughout the film. We know it’s all going to lead back to Cactus, so why should we care about any of the monotonous investigation Leo does for two-thirds of the film? I found the actual plot even more grating because it employed the obnoxious tactic of having to pay attention to every innocuous, political detail of conversations in order to have any hope of comprehending the entire story. I despise unnecessarily-complicated scripts, and this is the exact reason I didn’t find Atomic Blonde a particularly compelling film outside of its action pieces.
As with all films I look forward to, I really wanted to like Mute. Sadly, it just wasn’t in the cards for Duncan Jones. His passion project is an absolute trainwreck of a film, insufferably derivative of Blade Runner, and morally objectionable in its framing of Justin Theroux’s pedophiliac character. It’s despairing to watch a rising director’s ambitious endeavor crash and burn, but it’s perhaps even more distressing to watch Netflix as a studio transform into an easy way to dump bad films onto viewers. With the way Netflix has been performing, it’s not an unforeseeable fate for the site to become a kind of spiritual successor to the direct-to-DVD model. With two high-profile bombs in The Cloverfield Paradox and now Mute, its credibility as a means of production is very well in stake. I haven’t entirely forgone faith in either Duncan Jones or Netflix, but this home run of a blunder has certainly shattered some of it. As it stands, Mute is a painfully unsatisfying and dull affair that I cannot recommend to anyone.