Netflix needs to hush up
I have not seen a film distributor with as much disregard for quality control since The Asylum, purveyors of the world’s cheapest knockoffs of popular movies. But Netflix has been on a bold path of picking up hugely risky projects that have backfired spectacularly over the past few months. And the sad part is their next endeavor, Mute, is from a guy I personally respect and even like a lot. Duncan Jones made his debut on the Hollywood scene with the one-two punch of Moon and Source Code, garnering him critical acclaim before he tried to tackle the incredibly difficult Warcraft to mixed results. In the year and a half since his last job (and dealing with the death of his father, David Bowie, his wife’s recovery from cancer, AND welcoming a baby), I was excited to see his latest project, especially as I he had mentioned in multiple interviews that it took 10 years to get this project off the ground. And what he’s presented for everyone to see is…Jesus, I don’t where to start.
Alright, so our main protagonist is Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), an Amish mute working as a bartender in a futuristic Berlin, who sets out to investigate the disappearance of his girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). His journey takes him across the seedy underbelly of Berlin’s underground crime ring as he keeps running into two American surgeons, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). This pair of homoerotic yahoos are meanwhile dealing with Bill’s desperate attempt to return to the States with his daughter, and therefore find themselves at the beck and call of a mob boss that Naadirah had connections to. But as Leo’s inspection continues, he discovers more and more uncomfortable revelations about his lover; as well as how these strange surgeons played a role in her disappearance.
On paper, this is a classic noir set-up mixed some visuals heavily utilized by the likes Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. “Sounds like Chris’ cup of cocaine,” you’d normally think, smug bastards that y’all are; but unfortunately for me, neo-noir in this mold is only as good as a well-told story. And unfortunately, Mute is the opposite of well-told, in fact I’d call it’s plot as scattershot as firing feces from a blunderbuss. This is easily the most frustrating film I have tried to get through in a long time, and I sat through mother! and understood it fine, warts and all. I had to rewind multiple scenes in order to figure out what was going on or why it was important…and sadly most of it felt like wasted potential.
My issues with said potential begin with our protagonist in the mute Leo, who you’d think would make an interesting character for a noir detective tale. After all, it’s an extra hurdle for him to get over as he proceeds with his investigation of his missing girlfriend considering the fact he can barely ask basic questions and everyone disregards him as dumb. But the film barely uses Leo’s disability to any meaningful effect. Only on one occasion was the lack of a voice really a hamper to his journey, and it was basically a five minute delay to show off some science-fiction elements which never are fully explored nor do they play out in any meaningful way.
Actually, come to think of it, the cyberpunk setup is under-utilized severely. This plot could have taken place in any other timeframe, and nothing would have changed. At least Blader Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell (2017) got the most out of their settings by featuring its characters and technology as being directly tied to heavy sci-fi elements in order to explore some solid speculative fiction. But there’s nothing to intriguing that Mute offers within it’s own universe, aside from a Sam Rockwell cameo that the film keeps interrupting you with in order to serve as a epilogue to Duncan Jones’ first film, Moon. And quite frankly, I became way more interested in learning about this D-story than either of the two main plots.
Speaking of which, the subplot with these American doctors was incredibly misguided. Initially presented as a subplot running in conjunction with Leo’s investigation, it slowly becomes apparent they are obviously connected…but the buildup is so poorly done that I’m shocked at how its presented. See Leo and the pair keep running into each other, however the reason provided by the film is contrived, lazy, and frustrating upon a series of frustrations. Additionally, they add in the fact that one of them is a creepy pedophile and the filmmakers do nothing with this piece of information, and it doesn’t play at all for the main characters of the piece except by implication in the final ten minutes. On top of that, one of them, Paul Rudd, specifically has a contrived motivation that upon retrospection…didn’t mean shit and didn’t adequately explain why he took certain actions. But the most frustrating part? Is that Paul Rudd was acting the shit out of this role.
Actually, every one kicks ass in their roles. Even Skarsgård, who I have a mixed experience with, playing the role of a mute, which is never an easy task. On top of that, he makes the most of his screen presence with zero dialogue, thereby living up to the tagline of “he doesn’t need words.” The rest of the cast turn in solid performances all around, especially newcomer Seyneb Saleh. Even Theroeux as crazy as he is. Duncan Jones has always been a great director of actors, even when they were CGI-concoctions. And even with the most paper-thin of scripts (of his own creation), he gets each and every one of his thespians to give a damn. On top of that, he also hired a solid production company to bring his vision to life (even if it did crib a little bit from Altered Carbon and more than enough to earn a lawsuit from Ridley Scott’s set company.
It’s for those reasons that I’m not going to give this movie that low of rating. Because I saw EFFORT, which is more than I can say for certain films. And for the first act, I saw what Jones saw in his original idea. I just wished he either workshopped the concept more times because this feels like an honest-to-God first draft of a script committed to screen. And what’s doubly frustrating, is the fact that I can keep finding these positives because that makes me wish it was worse so I can damn it with a lower rating.
As it stands, the film matches Bright in terms of being a movie with practically limitless potential that squanders it at almost every opportunity given. From the mute protagonist to the cyberpunk setup to the abundance of vibrant characters, there was so much to mine from this concept, and yet the movie went completely went completely off the rails around the 30 minute mark and never quite recovers. So with that, I’m going to give this a painfully, painfully, painfully, low, low, low, low, low, lower than being held together with public hair, low….
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