Duncan Jones delivers a raw, eye-opening love story set in a dazzling version of the future that is absolutely worth your time.
There is a lot riding on Duncan Jones’ latest feature film, Mute. Jones has discussed how in many ways this film is his magnum opus and an extremely personal passion project for the director. It’s a film that Jones has been pushing to get made before Moon—his debut feature—even came out and now Netflix has finally given him the opportunity. While not perfect, Mute is very much worth the wait.
The funny thing is, if this had this been Jones’ debut film, or even his second or third picture, it arguably might have collapsed under its own weight. Mute is a nebulous story and only now does Jones exhibit the necessary amount of maturity and nuance as a filmmaker to bring this universe to life. Sure, this may look and feel a lot like Blade Runner and a less confident director wouldn’t be able to rise above the aesthetic similarities. Jones embraces these resemblances, but still allows Mute’s universe to be unique and stand on its own. At the same time, this is a delirious, dazzling experience to take in that does feel reminiscent of the experience of watching something like Blade Runner or even Drive for the first time.
Furthermore, Jones has also commented on how Mute is a spiritual sequel of sorts to Moon, with a final third film yet to complete the “trilogy.” Jones is at his best when he plays with bleak, emotional themes rather than getting too deep into special effects, such as in Source Code or Warcraft. Not only does Mute feel the closest to his debut film, but Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell even has a delightful cameo of sorts in the film, which also confirms that this all takes place in one large universe that Jones continues to flesh out. It’s also significant to note that Mute is dedicated to both Jones’ father, David Jones (aka David Bowie) as well as Marion Skene, the nanny who looked after Duncan after his parents divorced. This is a film about caretakers and love and Jones chooses to bookend the movie with that strong message.
Mute takes place somewhere in the future, but still close enough to the present time that things feel familiar. Set in Berlin, the film follows a mute bartender, Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) who searches for his missing girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), which gets him mixed up with Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux), two displaced army surgeons, as he continues on his hunt. The film gives off the impression of this orphaned society that has been abandoned and has to fend for themselves. You can feel the differences in society, technology, and culture in the many different areas that the film visits. Jones fleshes this future-noir world out with incredible precision.
It’s also impressive how the film throws a lot of new technology and information at the audience, but never dwells on it or makes it feel indulgent. It all serves a purpose and Jones is confident enough that the audience can understand how the world has evolved without a condescending voiceover or exposition. It’s interesting to see how many of the film’s characters congregate at a “massage parlor.” It seems to be the most popular pastime in this future.
Mute is a film that takes its time. It lets you get to know Leo and Naadirah and spend time with them so her disappearance means something to the audience and they can empathize with Leo’s struggle. For example, it’s easy to picture another version of this film that begins with Naadirah already gone or disappearing a few minutes into the movie. Jones lets his world and characters breathe. At the same time, this isn’t a long film and while Mute can languish in some of its scenes, it doesn’t feel like it drags. There’s a fair mix between intriguing character moments and contemplative action and it all never stops looking incredible.
On that note, the film’s pastel neon color palette is so damn gorgeous. This sort of future world can sometimes have a dreary vibe in film, but Mute doesn’t succumb to that. To add to that, Clint Mansell’s score is hauntingly beautiful and feels like a futuristic lullaby to soothe these pained people to sleep. There’s also a bad-ass Phillip Glass re-interpretation of Bowie’s “Heroes” towards the start of the film and then “Moss Garden” later on, too
So much of this film has to do with the people that run through its world. Skargard’s Leo is the focal point and he’s someone who was raised Amish, which makes him the polar opposite of the high-tech city and the fast pace of this world. It’s one thing to be unable to speak, but his heritage and upbringing makes him feel particularly out of touch with the film’s setting and binaries. Even simple gestures like Leo’s polite nature and decency seem foreign to others and make him stand out. The glimpse into Leo’s apartment shows a sparse room with no modern technology. He whittles, draws, listens to records, and leads a very quiet, monk-like existence as the world moves on outside his walls. Furthermore, Leo only has one outfit through the entire film—a suit that he conceivably brought with him from Amish country—which is a great symbol for his simplistic nature. Everyone else is so complicated, but even the visuals on Leo are stripped down and basic.
Mute presents Leo as someone who cares about tradition and this continually is put in conflict as his quest for Naadirah leads to his discovery that she was keeping quite a few secrets from him. The film certainly plays with the theme of whether you can ever truly know someone and if you can love someone who’s been keeping you in the dark.
Skarsgard does wonderful work in this role and he communicates leagues without saying a word. This is a performance that’s easy to botch, but Skarsgard rises to the challenge. He’s deeply terrifying when he’s lost his temper, but his scenes towards the start of the film where he’s bashful with Naadirah are just as engaging and it’s all wordless. All of it just feels so raw. Mute begins with an old Amish proverb, “In order to mold his people, God often has to melt them,” and boy does Leo get melted down. Through a portion of the film Leo drives a beautiful classic Cadillac that has a busted up and smashed front hood. It’s hard not to look at this as a metaphor for Leo himself; this pristine individual who’s now crushed and damaged.
Outside of Leo are Bill and Duck, who are characters that the audience assumes are heroes because that’s how Leo meets them and how the film introduces them. When the two are put under deeper scrutiny though, they actually come across quite differently. There are just as many scenes where they do unscrupulous things as there are moments where they help people out. Sometimes they even happen at the same time. Bill and Duck are both genuinely awful through a lot of the film and are collectively a very hard pill to swallow. They’re clearly meant to represent how much society has fallen, but it’s still very easy to cringe at their behavior. One of their fates is needlessly bleak while the other advances onto extreme sociopathic actions. It’s a lot.
In spite of the harshness of their actions, Cactus Bill and Duck develop a real rhythm and they’re just as engaging to watch as the bright lights of the city. In many ways, their relationship is just as fundamental as Leo and Naadirah’s, if not even more so. There’s a reckoning between them late in the game and it’s some heavy stuff that proves that they anchor this film as much as Leo does. Each of them echoes this feeling of extreme loneliness. These three are these retro voices of the past that clash and rub up against the aggressive future, which is an important theme for the film, too.
Relative newcomer Seyneb Saleh is also fantastic as Naadriah. She really kills this role and it’s easy to see why Leo will go to hell and back to keep her safe. Saleh and Skarsgard also have glorious chemistry, which makes this all the easier to get invested in. Their love is so believable and it’s crazy how the sound of a pencil scrawling on paper as Leo writes out a message can sound just as romantic as an eloquent monologue.
It’s depressing to see Leo’s quest be so fruitless for so long. He’s quite neutered through the first half of the film and Jones lets the movie stew in his pain. His search eventually begins to gain traction, but the film’s third act is its busiest and it sticks the landing. If the beginning of the film is Mute’s attempt to let the audience acclimate to this world, then the second half is about finally taking action and getting answers. Some may lose interest towards the film’s start or Jones’ realized universe may not be enough to initially grab some viewers, but Jones does the necessary work to make it easy to buy into all of this. Admittedly, the second half of the film does get a little sloppier and it never truly feels like Cactus Bill and Duck’s narrative meshes as well with Leo’s storyline as it should.
Ultimately Jones creates a universe that is more compelling than the characters within it, but the story still has enough merit to keep the film entertaining until the end. Skarsgard’s pain drives so much of this film and the ending marks a brutal conclusion to his cathartic journey. Mute tells a touching story in a powerful way, but it’s also just exciting to see Jones become a more accomplished filmmaker. He’s proven that he knows how to craft engaging worlds that people want to return to and Mute is more evidence of that.
Now I just need to figure out what the ingredients in a seahorse are.
Mute is now available to watch on Netflix.