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We get you.

Mute is a frustrating film. That much can be gleaned from the reviews, the best of which call it a mixed bag while the rest are too busy with the hyperbole of extremely low review scores, hot takes, and “worst movie ever” braying that can be understood to say more about the reviewer than the movie they’re on about. That’s sort of a downside of writing film criticism, or any kind of criticism: the more passionate you are, the more of yourself is leaking in. Too much and you’re obnoxious or, the favorite watch-word of an internet that could give a fuck about criticism as a form, “biased”. Too little and you’re leaning too heavily on description or plot recaps and wasting everybody’s time.

It’s obvious that creative pursuits also have the kind of relationship to what the author puts into it that a movie like Mute has. If it’s too much of a passion project, maybe it’s a self-indulgent mess that took fifteen years to greenlight for good reason. Too little and it’s just another Blade Runner/90’s hipster crime also-ran, only dated as fuck because we’ve collectively moved on from a lot of what you’re trying to do narratively or aesthetically.

Mute frequently feels like both of these things are happening at the same time. Some background information about how this movie came to be should be required, but at the end of the day, that stuff hardly matters. What really matters is whether it’s good or bad, right? Which side of the dichotomy does it belong on. Most people are going to say bad, and they’re not exactly wrong. But I wouldn’t be writing this if there weren’t more to say, if Mute was only bad. It is, in many ways, Southland Tales all over again. For others, it’s going to feel a bit like a lesser William Gibson novel. Probably the best way to view Mute is as Gibson likely did: a work of aesthetics-over-story which is mainly trying to get us immersed in a near-future Berlin underworld of crime, larceny, and darker deeds. Unsurprisingly, he liked it. I’d say that I liked this aspect of it, but there’s far more going on here and most of it is less successful.Mute-review-700x300

This is the A story.

One of the things viewers are going to pick up on fast is that this is one of those stories that has two almost wholly separate chunks which slowly, but surely, get fused into one by the end. You can see it happening as you watch, almost in slow motion, and mileage on that will vary by how “slow” it really feels to you. I think writer-director Duncan Jones (with co-writer Michael Robert Johnson) wants the world he’s lovingly crafted to do most of the heavy lifting. He’s hoping the audience will acquiesce to a Blade Runner ish pace, languid and dreamlike but inevitably purposeful.

Unfortunately, he seemed to have lost confidence in that at some point during Mute‘s fifteen year gestation. He has talked about how he wasn’t sure if the story of Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) and his search for lost love Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) was going to work. So he came up with two more characters who couldn’t be more different from Leo or less fitting to the movie we think we’re watching (when Leo’s the focus) until they’re suddenly all mashed up together in a pseudo-noir “case” which somewhat haphazardly follows the typical noir trope of two seemingly separate things really being inextricably linked all along. The trouble comes not from the separate story-lines, but from the way they consistently interrupt and step all over each other in just about every kind of way it’s possible for that to happen in a movie.

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And this is the B story.

Leo, an Amish bartender in a futuristic/cyberpunk Berlin, is a mute due to a boating accident and his parents’ refusal to let him undergo a surgery that would have saved his voice. The one connection he has to the alienating cityscape of neo Berlin is Naadirah, a blue-haired and warm-hearted girl with a secret. One night, Naadirah goes missing and Leo clashes with an assortment of figures that were just on the periphery of his world as he tries to find her. This plays out like a detective story and, I’m told, has a lot of connections to Casablanca. I’ve never seen it, but I think I understood what people meant as I watched, especially in the “Old Hollywood” sensibilities that the early scenes had in terms of performance. Sayneb Saleh in particular goes big and breathy, which some have called bad acting though I think it’s more a case of pushing for a certain aesthetic that the movie often forgets about in its pursuit of other priorities.

The other story is about Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and his attempts to falsify some papers to get he and his daughter out of Berlin and back to the States. He hangs out with Duck (Justin Theroux) his familiar and somewhat creepy old friend. Both of them were medics in the army, but Cactus is AWOL and running out of time due to his ex wife’s attempts to get him arrested by American MPs. Along the way there’s some allusions to a recent war, perhaps waged by Germany, and the intervention of Americans. There are also somewhat confusing references to Afghanistan given the movie takes place in the 2050s. The point here is not to make too much of any sort of political or global context for the movie. The city of Berlin is a kind of crossroads for all these people, all these ideas and aspects of culture and identity, and that’s really what matters and I think what Jones most wanted to convey. The shots and aesthetics of the city, the world-building and storytelling of its tiny details, is all the best stuff in the movie. But a lot of it is familiar and similar to Blade Runner 2049 or especially Altered Carbon. If you like cyberpunk enough, you’ll be right at home, but others may find it boring and in the shadow of better works with similar aesthetics.

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The idea of a hulking, silent Amish dude in a cyberpunk metropolis is pretty intriguing on its own.

For most of the running time, these two stories are separate. Some of the same characters pop in both, and there are a few interconnecting moments even past that (in particular, a scene where Cactus and Leo meet seemingly by accident). On a rewatch, I suspect that more of these interconnections would become apparent and somewhat undermine the sense of “two different movies in one mixed bag” that Mute cannot fully escape. At the same time, it’s not really the issue. It’s that the two movies feel incredibly different and never really mesh in a way that is interesting or elucidating for any themes or narrative ideas Mute might have. It is downright tough to tell what Mute is all about. Duck and Cactus’s movie is a talky, increasingly creepy gangster flick with the same kind of intriguing mix of specificity in character and flexibility in genre that makes Leo’s story appealing on paper. However, Duck and Cactus feel like characters with a coded language of their own, with specific history and priorities, that never really fit into their surroundings. There’s this sense that another movie happened in the second it took you to change positions on the couch. That movie isn’t exactly necessary and Mute never feels like it was torn apart and stitched back together the way a DCEU movie does, but it still doesn’t fit right. It’s not the kind of “stories at the margins” feel that many well-built worlds give you, a thing that is truer of Star Wars (at its best) or even the recent Black Panther than it is here. So sometimes it’s good when a movie evokes possible stories that we don’t see, but it is also sometimes bad. Here… it’s mostly bad.

Some have mentioned the poor performances of Rudd and Theroux but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. They’re both very choice-ridden performances, with Rudd in particular playing wildly against type. This, like everything else in the movie, is too specific and steeped in some kind of misguided passion to be a haphazard thing, or some kind of accident. The issue is that they feel like scenes out of a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie rip off, all about the post-modern absurdity of hip criminals and the para-criminals that offer unique roles or perspectives on the seedy underbelly of a cybperunk city. That all sounds good in a way, doesn’t it? Again, it’s interesting on paper but the execution feels janky, dated, and out of place. Not to mention a little over the top, with both Theroux and Rudd going very broad occasionally and still unable to fully sell some of the very specific choices, like their flirtatious allusions to being a couple now or at some point. Or the American Flag buggy that Duck drives around.

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I don’t really know even now if Theroux deserves the shit his performance is getting. Probably?

Through it all, there seems to be two distinct narrative and thematic points that Mute is making whether it knows it or not. Parsing them is the closest I think I can get to “what is this movie about?”. One is a little tropey, if inoffensive, while the other is intensely uncomfortable and gross. The first is the old school morality streak exhibited by and connecting Leo and Cactus. Both men are chivalrous, protective, and moral in their own ways. Leo steps in to defend Naadirah, and his love for her is uncompromised by his slow realization that she had a lot more going on than he ever guessed. Cactus, on the other hand, seems fairly amoral until he has to deal with Duck’s pedophilia. At that point, he reacts the way a lot of people would and in a way that almost makes you like him. It’s a scene that strongly evokes a similar one From Dusk til Dawn of all things. I think Leo’s white knighting is both an homage to the archetypal characters he’s built of, but also a connection to his “fish out of water”/”man out of time” nature. Both characters may have really come together if Mute was more a character study of one or both, or about how they are alike and different. But even the stuff I’m saying here seems somewhat incidental in execution.

The second point, the gross one, is the way the movie treats both sexuality and women in general. Naadirah is barely in the film and more an adornment than a character. She is even fridged, a trope Jones is likely familiar with since he makes a joking reference to the literal aspect of the fridge in “fridging” near the end. All other female characters are decorative and have no agency. These things contribute to a male-dominated perspective, which in itself is not a bad thing. But it does explain the sexual politics of the movie, which are regressive and gross and tinged with particularly masculine insecurities about sex and sex work. If Duck and Cactus are really a bit queer (I honestly don’t know if this was ever explicit in the movie, I may have missed something… they seem more playfully homoerotic), the association to his predatory words and actions (to say nothing of his pedophilia) evokes a long-standing and incredibly offensive false parallel between queer or homosexual identities and predatory sexual tendencies. In other words, it acts like being gay or bi is linked to being a pedophile or pervert. That’s probably not what Jones was intending, but it’s a noted way the movie comes off. Dominic Monaghan’s brief scene as a drag-Geisha probably wasn’t meant to be reductive either, but it was. That all said, there are some interesting ways the movie doesn’t strictly adhere to an insecure “non-missionary sex is weird and gross” perspective on non-hetero stuff. The femme fatale, if this movie even has one, is a gender creative dude played by the underrated Robert Sheehan, who strongly suggests that he’s in love with Naadirah too which is an interesting or problematic thing depending on how you read his queer gender performance in connection to his sexuality. There’s also that the movie isn’t really weird or judgmental about Cactus and Duck’s homoeroticism as such, it’s just the unfortunate associations to how they treat women and kids (respectively) that raises many red flags. In any event, I’d be really interested in a full queer analysis of the movie. I could see some forgiveness for its clumsiness just by virtue of the relatively high number of queer/gender-creative characters, for example, but it still seems problematic that they are all villains, prostitutes, etc.

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Whatever these dudes are about, don’t expect it to ever matter.

I don’t know which of the two stories in Mute is the most effective. I suspect Leo’s story, if the sole or primary focus of the movie, is the stronger and more familiar (archetypal) one. But some would see that as the boring or safe choice. I do think there are sequences that come out of it which show this movie at its best. Two examples spring to mind. One is really several small sequences, and involves Leo’s inability to speak and the way it affects how he navigates Berlin. This is a future where voice command is huge: in libraries, at ordering kiosks, etc and it puts Leo specifically in a position that parallels the broader position of Luddites, like the Amish, in an increasingly high tech world. The way he has to work around this limitation is evocative and interesting, especially in the second example where he has to use drone delivery systems (an under-explored current/near-future thing in movies at least) to track down Naadirah. The are other points in the movie where Leo shows himself to be intelligent and deductive, where the movie is able to give us the connections he’s making between the wide and seemingly disparate (but really connected) cast of underworld figures he encounters on his journey. In moments like this, the movie holds us a bit at arm’s length so we can see that Leo has figured something out and it builds character well.

On the other hand, Cactus’s story could have been refreshing if it was in a different movie. Of the two, it has the least reason to be set in the near-future (Duck’s prosthetic surgery business is just a detail) and the least to gain. Its world-building, which is the only place where the movie really extends beyond Berlin, feels leftover from an earlier draft of the movie. Most of those, interestingly, were not set in the future at all. It was only after realizing his “mute gangster” movie would feel similar to a lot of other movies that were coming out when he first came up with it that led Jones to set it in the future. So I think this is by far the weaker of the two storylines. To me, Mute is at its best when it’s focused on Leo or, if I’m being generous, as the two stories finally come together fully.

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The movie is often really beautifully shot.

At that point, you think you’re on a collision course between Cactus and Leo but really, it’s between Duck and Leo. The last thirty minutes or so is going to be a point in the movie where a lot of people have probably given up on it. The flashback sequence where we see Cactus stalking Naadirah and killing her won’t help. But it’s also where the movie is treating its characters and their collision with the most complexity. No, it’s not really interesting that Cactus killed Naadirah and it’s taken this long for the movie to acknowledge that (there are some hints that Duck did it without his knowledge, but it’s a red herring). What is interesting is how it informs Duck’s reaction to Cactus and to Leo, making the finale kind of bizarre and languid in the way the earlier parts of the movie seemed to suggest the whole thing would be. Cactus being unhinged and obsessed and violent isn’t all that interesting. Leo’s quest for his love and then for revenge/justice when her true fate is revealed isn’t all that interesting either. Duck, however, has a really specific and non-archetypal reaction. Duck both regrets Cactus’s death and Naadirah’s, and really seems to regret the loss of the more innocent time when they all first met and maybe loved each other. Now he’s giving in to his pedophilia, he’s orchestrated and assured Cactus’s death, and he’s in possession of the movie’s true MacGuffin: Naadirah and Cactus’s daughter. His intentions for her are what truly solidify him as the movie’s real villain, but Mute doesn’t try to bait and switch that so much as pause for a moment to reflect on what it is that makes Duck a villain. In spite of how reductive the film is in its sexual politics, Duck’s evil comes from character and history more than from a mental illness or sexual perversion, whichever we want to call it.

There’s also a return here to the motif of Leo submerging himself in water for as long as he can, a thing that reoccurs a few times in the movie but seems largely meaningless until you try to unpack it a bit. It’s about his relationship to his world, similar to how his muteness is. It’s key that at one point, we see him screamingly soundlessly in the pool. The water is his refuge, his barrier, and his submersion in it is what grounds him. That’s all strongly rooted in characterization, so perhaps the full payoff is a bit too late or clunky but I thought it worked well. Then the movie trips it up and ends a few seconds later than it should, with Leo saying (with the voice Duck gave him as a sort of ironic punishment, to extract his own weird justice) to the kid that he’ll take her to her grandma’s and then a cut to them sitting in a diner (how much later? who knows) where a nice little character reveal happens at an inexplicable moment. The movie doesn’t really leave us with much as a result, except the sense that it occasionally toyed with that Naadirah (and the movie) sees Leo as a better father for the girl than Cactus could ever have been. But if the movie was about rescuing innocence and hope from a fucked up prison of crime, self-interest, and alienation… why not just focus on that the whole time?

Like I said. A frustrating movie. But not an entirely unrewarding one.

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