The latest film from Moon director Duncan Jones, Mute is a weak sci-fi neo-noir about a speechless man who goes in search of his missing girlfriend, only to discover a dark underworld. Left mute by a childhood boating accident, for which his strictly religious Amish mother refused medical treatment to cure, Leo Beller (Alexander Skårsgard) seems filled with contradictions.
Leo appears to lead a reclusive, strictly observant Amish life: he wears primitive suits, and his home, filled with old printed photographs, lacks any modern technology. Leo doesn’t have a phone, and refuses to watch television, so for someone who adheres to such rigid religious rules, it’s somewhat incoherent that he would be working as a barman serving alcohol in a lap dancing bar. Why he chose this job is never explained, but it’s convenient because his blue-haired sex worker girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) also works there.
We’re supposed to accept that two people with entirely different religious codes are in a loving relationship, and there is no detail or back story to understand how they got together; for someone as pious as Leo, their sexual intimacy seems incongruent. But given Naadirah is full of secrets and Leo can’t speak, the fact they are in a relationship at all is unbelievable. So when she goes missing, and he has to wander into the seedy world of pimps and gangsters in search of her, we are just as speechless as Leo is.
The world Mute occupies is full of sex. Whether it’s the naked bodies on display in the bar, the sex workers in the brothel, an irrelevant semi-nude shot of Naadirah in the shower, or an entirely unnecessary – and totally jarring – up-skirt shot of a teenage girl’s knickers-covered crotch, they all have in common that even in an imagined future, it’s still the female body which is to be looked at, objectified, and freely available for male consumption, whether that’s for a character on-screen, or the viewer watching. In this, Mute offers nothing out of the usual gratuitous female-flesh-as-wallpaper that mainstream Hollywood provides, but for a writer/director as skilled as Jones it’s incredibly disappointing. His previous sci-fi work has been innovative and refreshing, and Mute falls well below par with its bland, uncritical retreading of sexist tropes.
The villains of the piece, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux, as a pair of part-time surgeons for the Mob, seem to offer some light entertainment, by way of extreme violence and exaggerated profanity, and some of their dialogue is funny, but it tires after a while. They become less believable as characters as the film progressed, and with the weird subplot of paedophilia, it’s impossible to care about their relevance in the narrative. They’re both skilled actors, but with weak material, their scenes fell flat.
Ironically, for a character unable to speak, Leo’s part seemed the best written. Skårsgard managed to physicalise his fear and pain with impact; the dominance of his towering physical presence juxtaposed nicely with his emotional suffering, and he carried the fragility of this in his face well. Also impressive is the production design (Gavin Boquet) and cinematography (Gary Shaw). There are obvious hints of the bleak future noir of Blade Runner, and the use of Berlin as the backdrop, mixing old and new, worked very effectively. The VFX and SFX are also good, the costume design (Ruth Myers) is worthy of mention too, and the score, by long-term collaborator Clint Mansell, is excellent.
There are some knowing throwbacks to Moon, Jones’ debut feature, and since Jones states that Mute is set in the same world as Moon, and is the second part of a trilogy, it’s no surprise that it’s full of Moon Easter eggs: a newscast shows multiple Sam Bells sitting in a courtroom; Gerty’s smiley face visible on a bowling ball; Lunar Industries’ logo is prominently displayed, even across a 24-hour fuelling station/food stop. Jones has publicly stated that he first came up with the idea of Mute 16 years ago, and it perhaps suffers most from having been over-thought and under-written by Jones and his co-writer Michael Robert Johnson: there’s huge focus on trying to come up with sharp, funny dialogue, and not enough questioning has gone into whether the characters are believable or not. No one is likeable, and none of the relationships seem at all realistic.
If one has to spend two hours of a film questioning how and why two people are friends, or partners, or lovers, or parents, and no answers are provided, then it doesn’t matter how snappy the jokes may be, because no one will care. Jones has great talent as a director, but even with good performances by the cast, Mute is let down by a weak and bland script. Hopefully his next endeavour focuses more on story and less on dated Tarantino-style humour and sexist objectification.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack