MUTE is a Netflix original movie from director Duncan Jones. It’s a science fiction noir film, taking place in a near-future Berlin filled with neon lights, flying cars, and robots. On a conceptual level, MUTE has all the makings of a thought provoking film. It’s unfortunate that the film completely collapses under its own weight.
MUTE tells the story of Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), a mute man that begins a desperate search for his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) after she suddenly disappears. The film also follows two Americans, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) as they navigate the underworld of Berlin – Bill hoping to procure forged documents to allow him to return to the United States with his daughter, and Duck tagging along as Bill’s best friend. As the film continues, the two stories begin to intersect and it becomes apparent that nothing is quite what it seems.
The film’s biggest problem is its protagonist, Leo. Leo is a mute, and spends the film in silence. He’s completely unsympathetic, precisely because he’s an enigma. Leo spends the bulk of the film searching for Naadirah, but his storyline is never compelling because it’s impossible to understand how he is feeling. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Leo’s character is that he is Amish. The concept of what it means to be an Amish man in a futuristic, high-tech world is incredibly intriguing – but it is completely wasted in the film. Leo is simply Amish to explain why he never had his vocal cords repaired. The film highlights the fact that he sits in a restaurant facing away from a television because he’s Amish and has an aversion to technology – yet he uses a phone and drives a car with no qualms. Leo is a silent, brooding character without any real purpose – and it’s maddening.
MUTE also never bothers to really build up the relationship between Leo and Naadirah. This is partially due to the fact that it’s a one-sided relationship since Leo doesn’t talk. But there is also a ton of back story that the film neglects to inform the audience about Naadirah. This is done for the express purpose of giving the audience some shocking twists as the film nears the climax. But the lack of pertinent information regarding Naadirah is a detriment to her character – and it also really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense once everything is revealed. By the time MUTE ended, I was left with a ton of questions about things that just didn’t make any sense. It’s understandable that films can have plot holes – but MUTE has so many plot holes that the film feels completely nonsensical.
The film takes place in Berlin, Germany – which looks like a knockoff BLADE RUNNER set. There’s no world building to make this version Berlin feel alive and real – it just feels like an attempt to mimic other portrayals of a futuristic society. Despite taking place in Berlin, the vast majority of the characters speak in English – which made no sense. Occasionally, characters do speak German – but it’s very rare. There seems to be no reason why Berlin was chosen – although a subplot involving American soldiers going AWOL makes it clear that a non-U.S. country was needed to base the story around for the plot to work. But oddly, MUTE never details what is going on with that subplot. Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) is clearly an AWOL American desperate to return to the United States, and he even interacts with American military members a few times – but the film never addresses this or explains why soldiers are abandoning the military. It’s just an unanswered question.
MUTE also contains a really horrific subplot that made my skin crawl. Duck (Justin Theroux) is a pedophile – and his dialogue when describing how he views underage girls is nauseating. Although Theroux certainly nails this creepy portrayal, it feels like MUTE tries to normalize Duck’s viewpoint. There are a few times when Duck mentions Bill’s daughter in a sexual way, and Bill confronts him angrily – but these confrontations always end with the two still on good terms. It’s maddening – especially when Bill discovers that Duck has been secretly filming girls as they change clothes in his office. The two men practically come to blows – but right in the middle of their argument, Bill receives good news from a phone call and the two then proceed to go out to celebrate with beers. It’s a completely jarring transition, and it’s unsettling.
The one bright spot in MUTE for me was Cactus Bill. I’m used to Paul Rudd playing the comic relief, and while he has some funny lines in this film, his character is very much a villain. It was so refreshing to see Rudd with a crazed intensity. The motivations of his character may have been muddied, but Rudd still managed to create an incredibly unhinged and interesting character. It’s a rare, dramatic role for him and he played the part extremely well.
MUTE is a film with a lot of interesting concepts, but it squanders its potential with a completely dull, nonsensical plot and a cast of really unlikeable characters. MUTE is a colossal disappointment and a singularly unenjoyable cinematic experience.