Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Michael Robert Johnson, Duncan Jones
Producer: Stuart Fenegan, Ted Sarandos
Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Gilbert Owuor, Jannis Niewohner, Rob Kazinsky, Noel Clarke, Dominic Monaghan
The search for his missing girlfriend leads a mute man through the seedy underworld of futuristic Berlin.
“Mute’s” mixture of Humphrey Bogart noir and William Gibson sci-fi invites inevitable comparisons to “Blade Runner” (review here). So does Clint Mansell’s vaguely Vangelis-like score, the retro-chic character designs, and bright neon colors reflecting off wet pavement in fog. “Mute” is even more like “Blade Runner” in that when you stop staring at its richly detailed design, you’re forced to realize you’re stuck in a snail-paced gumshoe mystery that isn’t exceptionally engaging.
In a nebulous neo-future Berlin that looks a lot like 2049 Los Angeles, mute bartender Leo desperately searches for his missing girlfriend Naadirah. Let me be clear lest his fervent fans let loose: I’ve always enjoyed watching Alexander Skarsgard perform, particularly on “True Blood,” and appreciate him as a uniquely appealing actor. But Skarsgard sees fit to choke personality from his unspeaking role by compensating with wildly contorted expressions. Skarsgard seemingly takes his absence of dialogue as a reason to regularly overreact like a blind man seeing color for the first time, bulging his eyes or dropping his jaw with exaggerated faces that would make Jerry Lewis wince.
Leo’s distinct lack of intrigue justifies part of Skarsgard’s desperation to put some form of fire into him. Our sum knowledge of Leo includes only a few facts, e.g. he is Amish, a talented artist, and deeply in love with Naadirah. But his purpose in the plot is to emptily play connect the dots as he engages with more colorful characters from one scene to the next. None of these beige breadcrumbs on Leo’s roundabout trail feed his development in a progressive way.
Leo is also stereotypically hotheaded, immediately throwing punches at any man who makes a disparaging comment about Naadirah, which happens on multiple occasions. Collect this bare minimum background together and the mold Leo cuts himself from simply isn’t attractive.
Leo’s womanhunt leads him through a tame underground of mild mobsters and asexual hookers. One of the primary players on this side of the story is Cactus Bill, an AWOL army doctor looking for a cloak and dagger route out of the city. Bill provides Paul Rudd an excuse to do a BJ Hunnicutt impression by dusting a dirty martini with his handlebar ‘stache after performing meatball surgery. This is still a much better wardrobe and costume embodiment than the Jeffrey Dahmer wedge cut wig worn by Justin Theroux as Bill’s lecherous partner Duck.
Rudd’s comic relief is unquestionably “Mute’s” greatest asset. Rudd doesn’t take center stage often enough to singlehandedly save the movie from being crushed under the weight of its dryness, though he saves enough of it to add entertainment value that doesn’t come purely from cinematic atmosphere. It’s a shame homophobic slurs make it into Bill’s vocabulary, blemishing his otherwise smarmy charm.
Besides inducing narcolepsy, “Mute’s” chief issue involves its overload of extraneous world building it neither needs nor uses. Rarely has a fictional setting been this busy without actually getting anything noteworthy done.
End credits list 51 actors for 49 roles (twins play Bill’s daughter Josie and Leo also appears as a boy). To be fair, only 24 credited characters have proper names while the rest are ‘Greasy Spoon Owner,’ ‘8-Year-Old Son,’ etc. Regardless, making a haystack out of unnecessary people creates confusion over who and what the audience is meant to invest in for a simple setup of one man looking for one woman.
Naadirah needs money for a reason viewers can’t be privy to. She seems to be running from someone, although there is barely a list of motivated suspects. “Mute” dishes out countless bits of cryptic exposition while introducing numerous low-level thugs as obstacles. Yet it rarely offers an indication of what is at stake for many players, aside from avoiding an ambiguous threat of bodily harm. What else exists to inspire audience interest?
Inert action sequences only bolster boredom. A car chase features Leo tailing an unaware flying car that is essentially a distant drone. There’s neither urgency nor excitement in his low speed pursuit. A scene where Leo beats two bouncers plays in a static wide shot with actors shadowed. Another shot teases a big battle between Leo and a burly German only to have their fierce faceoff occur offscreen.
“Mute” runs over two hours, yet those 120+ minutes curiously cut choicer scenes to load up on conversations, redundancy, or to set Leo aside for a long library research montage. Even after Leo reaches the last stop on his quest and resolves his primary conflict, an additional 20 minutes tacks on another antagonist to further draw out dull drama.
Do we really need an extra scene of Justin Theroux filming a young girl with an open hospital gown from behind, after already showing him bedding Bill’s babysitter in a sex club, ogling a bent over schoolgirl, and making an inappropriate comment about Bill’s daughter too? How much uncomfortable content does “Mute” presume we need to recognize Duck’s pedophilia?
That’s another part of “Mute’s” problem. It doesn’t accept that we “get it,” and hammers hints into our teeth to the point of insulting exhaustion. Heavy-handed symbolism includes killing the villain with a stab in the throat, mirroring the neck scar making Leo mute. Waterborne tragedies bookend the movie in another thematically obvious manner. Subtlety isn’t in play when “Mute” inserts flashback cutaways with echoing voiceovers as unneeded reminders of previous clues.
“Mute” misuses its many minutes to craft an illusion of intricacy without backing gripping material behind it. What use is the surface appeal of visual vibrancy in the absence of a satisfying story? That question can silence anyone.
Review Score: 45