Duncan Jones Delights In The Disorientation Of "Mute"

After Duncan Jones’ underrated “Warcraft” flopped stateside, the “Source Code” writer-director pressed forward with passion project “Mute,” a spiritual sequel to his 2009 feature length debut “Moon.” The result is, precisely, gaga: a bizarrely cast old-timey noir dressed in sci-fi clothing, begging death-kissed comparisons to “Blade Runner.” It has more in common with the black-and-white pictures that inspired Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, though, only interested in postmodernism as it pertains to storytelling conventions. It’s not quite a looker, its middling production values frequently announcing its station as a Netflix original. But filmdom is a much better place for having Jones’ voice in it, even if it amounts to curios like “Mute.”

True to its film noir roots, the pic’s narrative is properly convoluted.

In a futuristic Berlin, Germany, a mute bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) desperately searches for his missing blue-haired girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). The last words she speaks to him suggest a double life finally catching up to her; Leo proceeds looking for clues accordingly. A gum-smacking, mustachioed black market surgeon named Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and his vaguely sinister partner Duck (Justin Theroux) figure in. But how?

David Wain fans will delight in Rudd and Theroux’s mini “Wanderlust” reunion; most everyone else will puzzle over the duo’s scenes which range from lightly confusing to full-on disturbing. Duck’s incessant use of the affectionate “babe” is sure to have some viewers reaching for the remote control, Theroux delighting in his character’s bleach-blonde repulsiveness. Rudd’s Cactus Bill isn’t so grating. Seeing the eminently lovable actor stretch like this is a thrill, even if he has trouble tamping down his screwball sensibilities in the midst of some twisted material.

Skarsgård’s turn is just as difficult to pin down. Jones and his director of photography Gary Shaw effectively convey the Swedish actor’s sneakily big frame – he stands at a healthy 6′ 4″ – and combined with thick scars on his neck, it makes for the right kind of “gentle giant” vibe. Not so gentle though when pushed to the brink, where Skarsgård becomes just a little less believable. Leo has no qualms with subduing rowdy club patrons or thumping violent thugs with an ornate bedpost crafted for his now lost love. The actor isn’t quite up to the tricky task of conveying such a transformation wordlessly, leaving us – and strangely, Jones and Michael Robert Johnson’s screenplay – hung up on Bill and Duck.

Thusly, Rudd and Theroux end up the curdled lifeblood of “Mute,” a circus where the sideshow freaks break free of their tents and take over the big top. The tale of Leo and Naadirah is lightly engaging in its own familiar way, but Bill and Duck are the only elements of the film that escape its imitative neon-lit glow, becoming far more than token villains in a purposefully opaque neo-noir.

Herein, Duncan Jones has come up with the follow-up to “Moon” that no one was clamoring for, which is exactly why an eventual cult following is inevitable – and deserved. It would’ve been all too expedient to make a trippy but relatively straightforward sci-fi thriller with this cast and these resources. But like his late father, to whom the film is dedicated, Jones has obviously, stubbornly made exactly what he wanted to make; a slippery thing that will alienate most, thrill a few, and go down as yet another inimitable chapter in an increasingly fascinating filmography.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 23, 2018
Studio: Netflix
Director: Duncan Jones
Screenwriter: Duncan Jones, Michael Robert Johnson
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh