Witness meets Blade Runner seems like a compelling enough idea for a movie, especially when you throw in a splash of Splash, but despite its fervid imagination, the new Netflix movie Mute is a production design in search of a story.
In Berlin 40 years in the future, Leo (Alexander Skarsgard), a shy Amish woodcarver who has been unable to speak since a childhood incident, is living with his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a cocktail waitress at a sleazy strip club. She goes missing while sleeping next to him in bed and he lumbers off in pursuit, he and the viewer trying to decode the city together. Meanwhile, a pair of Army surgeons (Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux) are taking full advantage of the city’s depravities even though one of them — the Rudd character, called Cactus Bill — is AWOL and robot bounty hunters are roaming the city promising cash in return for information about people like him. While Bill tries to arrange a deal with local gangsters to secure fake identities for him and his young daughter, he and his buddy Duck (Theroux, who has Owen Wilson’s hair and Bing Crosby’s dry tone of speech) do meatball surgery work in a filthy basement, fixing up bullet wounds for the mobsters. In their free time, they hang out at a brothel, the daughter patiently coloring in her drawings while Caligulan decadence flows all around her. When Daddy leaves his girl to be babysat by the prostitutes, he issues injunctions like “No soda!” Dad of the year, this guy.
Co-written and directed by Duncan Jones, in part as a tribute to his Berlin-adoring father David Bowie, the film is awash with Blade Runner–style furnishings such as androids, a clamorous multiculturalism, and a fatalistic air of neon noir. Instead of putting a cop in Amish territory à la Witness, though, the film imagines an Amish guy completely alien to contemporary gadgetry (someone calls him a “tech-tard”) trying to navigate an ultramodern city without even the ability to respond to the many voice-activated computer gizmos (hence the kinship with Splash, in which a mermaid tries to figure out New York City without being able to speak).
Beneath all the whirring sci-fi touches there is only the barest sketch of a story.
Beneath all the whirring sci-fi touches — drones delivering fast food right into people’s living rooms, sex robots — there is only the barest sketch of a story. The answer to what happened to Naadirah turns out to be straightforward and not particularly interesting. Leo follows a trail of simple clues (someone keeps sending him messages on a smartphone he is only just learning how to use), and despite his handicaps he finds it not all that difficult to find his way around. He apparently doesn’t drive, for instance, but quickly figures out how to drive a Mercedes.
A major chunk of the movie is devoted to the revolting, sometimes disturbing antics of Cactus and Duck, which suggest Hawkeye and Trapper John gone bad, but despite the former’s unruly mustache and the hunting knife he carries in his belt (I believe it’s called a Bowie knife), Paul Rudd is simply not a scary fellow. The role calls for an edgy guy with a psychotic glint in his eye — a Christian Bale, maybe a young Robert De Niro. Rudd is too whimsical, too sweet-natured, too Ant-Man to carry it off. And when Cactus’s storyline finally meets up with Leo’s, it’s a yawner. A drab, uninventive musical score by Clint Mansell makes the clunky story even worse.
Movies like these typically dress up their thin plotting with a few philosophical or political or religious filigrees — you know, a bit of dialogue about what makes us human or who gets the right to create others or, failing all else, the old standby about how evil multinationals are strangling our planet with pollution. There’s none of that here. It’s just a slow-moving noir with nothing much it wants to say except “Hey, look at this” — what an android stripper might look like, a black guy with an incongruous Russian accent, a killing squad with blacked-out mouths and all-white eyeballs. The pleasure palaces and hovercraft taxis are set off against garbage and graffiti. Some of these details may be new, but the idea of a morally and literally filthy future that is somewhere between “full-on dystopia” and “Detroit in 1978” has been put on screen so many times that it’s hard to muster much interest.
Jones first attracted attention with his clever, visually arresting 2009 movie Moon (whose cloned hero, played by Sam Rockwell, pops up as an in-joke here). Jones’s superb 2011 time-travel mystery Source Code was a big step forward, but it led to the dismal would-be blockbuster Warcraft (2016), his one foray into studio filmmaking. Now Jones seems to be retreating a bit, back to auteur mode, but the trap there is that without any suits to tell you your screenplay is weak, you wind up directing the hell out of a so-so story. Notably, Jones didn’t write Source Code, but he co-wrote the script for Mute. Netflix, being new to the game and eager to build relationships, is awfully indulgent with filmmakers, but a studio president would have told Jones to throw this half-baked script back in the oven.