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Mute, the latest Netflix sci-fi, is a weird Frankenstein’s creature of a film. It’s filled with interesting ideas and unique touches. Sadly, they are just ones which never coalesce into a satisfying whole. Set in a future Berlin, Alexander Skarsgård stars as Leo, a mute Amish strip-club bartender (yes, really). While everyone around him uses high-tech gadgets and flying vehicles, he lives a modest life with his true love, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh).
However, when Naadirah goes missing, Leo must navigate the seedy cityscape to find her. He arms himself with some decorative wood he was crafting and uses it as his weapon of choice. Eventually, his path will cross with surgeons Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), American army deserters hiding out in the city. Making money by providing gangsters with their services, they somehow are involved with Naadirah’s disappearance.
The synopsis sounds batshit but the type of batshit that could work in the right hands. However, despite this being a long gestating passion project for the talented Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), there are multiple elements which don’t work – some which may actually be down to the extended time from script to screen. Originally written in the 2000s as a Brit-crime flick and then redrafted with a sci-fi edge and a German setting (Berlin was after all important to David Bowie, Jones’ late father who gets a thanked in the end credits), the film’s futuristic setting feels strangely inconsequential. Aside from aesthetic, the Deutschland capital has very little to do with how the plot plays out, coming across as more of a distraction. What is the point of this near future to the mystery, when all it took to solve was getting in contact with Naadirah’s mom?
Perhaps, the Berlin setting was a tribute to Jones’ father. Yet, despite the writer-director stating on his press tour that a key theme of Mute is fatherhood, nothing about the movie’s story says anything about what it means to be a dad. Leo does not have a kid. The only character that does is villain Cactus Bill, someone who genuinely loves his daughter – even killing for her. Yet, despite scolding his paedophile pal Duck for his tendencies, Bill still spends time with him – even at one point leaving his child with the pervert.
There is an appeal in watching Rudd and Theroux (particularly the former, cast quite against type) be abrasive assholes to everyone they are around. Warped mirror images of Trapper John and Hawkeye from Robert Altman’s MASH, the two are critiques of America. Or are they? Aside from being loud and obnoxious, the characters don’t seem to reinforce US ideals. Cactus Bill is a deserter, not a particularly American feat of bravery. That said, even if their characters do not entirely work as symbols (and it takes forever to link them to Leo), the two actors add an anarchic spirit to the film, a refreshing dose of craziness against the sombre nature of our Amish lead.
Even the semi-movie references don’t work. There is a homage to The French Connection. Leo, in his ground car, chases after a suspect in a floating one. The chase ends under a rail bridge. Only thing is the suspect does not know he is being chased and there is no one driving on the road, killing all the excitement or tension that made the scene in Friedkin’s movie so iconic.
Eventually, Mute delivers on the cathartic violence. Leo’s revenge is appropriately graphic but poetic. Except the movie continues for another 20 minutes as our hero must take down a second, far less intimidating villain. While that’s a pacing problem in itself, the motivation of baddie two is so implausible, it defies belief.
Netflix’s latest is far from the disaster of The Cloverfield Paradox. For one thing, it certainly was not made by committee. It feels like one writer-director’s berserk artistic statement akin to something like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. If that sounds interesting to anyone reading and they have two hours to kill, check it out. However, if they want something good, they should probably wait until Annihilation.