Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Want all of the eye-popping spectacle of BLADE RUNNER and BLADE RUNNER 2049, but none of that pesky thought-provoking, esoteric commentary? Enter co-writer/ director Duncan Jones’ MUTE. Those looking for a subversive sci-fi/ neo-noir best look elsewhere. Jones’ film, albeit equally ambitious, follows the familiar trappings of noirs that have come before it without gifting us with anything new or genuinely provocative. It’s far from the groundbreaking artistry we expect. While it hints at a modest complexity bubbling beneath the surface, it’s never particularly interested in making a resounding statement.
Leo’s (Alexander Skarsgård) voice was irreparably damaged in an accident when he was younger. Raised Amish, his parents didn’t believe in surgery so he’s lived all his life without finding his voice. Since he’s an analog man in a digital, futuristic world, he finds it increasingly difficult to live by those religious tenets. Leo’s world is turned upside down when his loving girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) goes missing and he sets out to find her. He compiles the clues that lead him all sorts of places, crossing paths with lotharios like arrogant, obnoxious, AWOL military surgeon Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd cosplaying Tom Selleck circa MAGNUM P.I. as crossbred with “Hawkeye Pierce” from M*A*S*H), his best friend/ military doctor Duck (Justin Theroux), and a group of underground mobsters and hustlers.
Jones, along with screenwriter Michael Robert Johnson, pads the narrative out with tangential stories about the supporting characters. Bill’s arc deals with wanting to get his daughter Josie (Mia-Sophie Bastin) out of Berlin and return to the States. Naadirah’s gender-bending best friend/ ex-boyfriend Luba (Robert Sheehan) is working out his lovelorn issues. The mobsters and hustlers are into thuggery and shady business dealings involving a nightclub front and prostitutes. And Duck’s indiscretions get him into some hot water. But none of this really adds up to much.
The filmmakers’ ideas would’ve been more successful if they simplified things, sticking with Leo’s unrelenting quest to find his gal. Instead, the narrative momentum gets hobbled by weak C-stories about characters we don’t – and shouldn’t – care about. Their attempts to humanize someone as abrasive and despicable as Cactus Bill, an “ugly American” type, never work to full advantage. Giving him a daughter doesn’t automatically make us empathize, let alone sympathize, with his plight. It’s this film’s answer to the “as a father of a daughter” statement of wrong-headed ally-ship. We’re supposed to care about him by the time the inevitable showdown with Leo occurs. However, we don’t.
On the whole, women are treated poorly. We’re there exclusively to aid the male characters’ arcs. Naadirah’s disappearance/ possible kidnapping motivates Leo to take on a challenge, navigating the technologically-advanced cityscape. Not to mention the genesis of Leo’s character begins with his mom – the decision maker as to him not undergoing surgery in his childhood. Cactus Bill embarks on his quest because of two female characters – Josie and his ex-wife. And Duck’s depravity is driven by his wanton lust of inappropriately young girls. There’s no femme fatale and nary a strong female to be found anywhere.
That said, Jones and Johnson’s world-building is certainly solid. Sarah Horton, Wolfgang Metschan and David Scheunemann’s set design, Gavin Bocquet’s production design, and Bernhard Henrich’s set decoration all work brilliantly in concert with each other, building a beautiful playground. The filmmakers’ ideas of neo-Berlin are beguiling, but often heavy on the BLADE RUNNER influence of glowing neon billboards clashing against the grittiness of wet cement and graffiti.
Despite a fun little Easter Egg Jones’ fans will immediately pick up on, and some symbolism involving water and dolphins, there’s not a lot MUTE has to say about anything. It comes up short in the conversation.
MUTE is now streaming on Netflix.