It’s starting to feel that Duncan Jones has an issue with timing. After the instant classic Moon and the brisk and punchy Source Code, Jones disappeared off into the wilderness to return five years later with Warcraft, a decent fantasy action piece that unfortunately arrived after the cultural phenomenon of World of Warcraft had long since peaked. Mute, described by Jones as far back as 2009 as his “love letter to Blade Runner” arrives now on a platform that heavily promoted its own Blade Runner-influenced production — the TV series Altered Carbon — just weeks before, and also just a few months after an actual Blade Runner sequel has been and gone. In this context, the impact of Mute is, well, muted.
There’s no escaping the sense that Mute has either been re-written too many times or hasn’t been re-written enough, with a nihilistic tone that clashes with the bright neon setting and the exuberance of the film’s villains, and with a story that’s satisfyingly deep in one moment and shallow in the next. Jones has previously shown great attention to detail in his character work, but only halfway pulls it off here with two-dimensional stereotypes bumping awkwardly up against multi-layered and morally complex others.
The heart of the film’s problem is Alexander Skarsgård as the Amish Leo, who shows surprisingly little screen presence despite being an eight foot tall Swedish blonde with a body carved out of marble. The wordless antagonist is something we’ve seen a lot of in cinema — The Terminator, Westworld, and to a lesser extent No Country For Old Men, for instance — but it only works when paired with characters who know of, and are unsettled by, that character’s unstoppable approach. The idea of a silent protagonist may have worked better on paper than how it’s realised here; a character with no inner or outer voice, the action occasionally having to pause so Leo can scribble notes for others to read. Skarsgård does his best with what he has to work with — there’s an underwater scream that does wonders for showing Leo’s pent-up rage and frustration — but for the most part he feels underwritten.
Also an issue is Seyneb Saleh’s Naadirah, a charismatic counterpart to Leo who turns out to be yet another female character whose only role is to be the driving motivation for the leading man, a trope that may have passed fractionally more muster 10-15 years ago when Jones first started work on this, but is now worn out beyond repair. Maybe it’s due to the trappings of the ‘80s cyberpunk look and feel, a stylistic choice that tends to pigeonhole women as either cold, buttoned-up executives, or heart-of-gold strippers, but whatever the reason, Mute is not a film with any interest in the female voice, and it isn’t a good look.
On the other end of the scale, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux as the film’s villains Cactus Bill and Duck are clearly having a whale of a time: both are expertly-drawn horrors, warming us to them with their witty, comfortable bantering and believable camaraderie before snapping back to show just how monstrous they really are. There’s a sense that Jones had so much more fun writing scenes and dialogue for this pair than for Leo that the actual hero of the story gets quietly sidelined, and the effect is as if there are two different films running concurrently. Bill and Duck are a grimly fascinating pair, superficial friends brought together through shared trauma and combat, but simmering with resentment as they’ve tried to avoid knowing each other’s true nature, a resentment that routinely boils over into either flat-out rage or sociopathic deceit. Rudd turns in one of the deepest and most convincing performances I’ve ever seen from him, and Theroux is skin-crawlingly creepy; the two are the most strongly-written and strongly-performed characters here, but it’s also not a ringing endorsement of your film that those most enjoyable to spend time with are also the ones you’re hoping will fail.
I’d class Mute as an interesting failure rather than a flat-out catastrophe, a pessimistic and hopeless film that tries to end on an optimistic and hopeful note and never quite convinces. I watched through to the end and was never bored, so it’s clearly doing something right: it’s a morose work, but the film’s narrative is enjoyably complex in a ‘30s film noir way, and there’s a great Clint Mansell score that harks back to Jones’ better films. The film also does look great, even if its aesthetic has been done to death elsewhere.
In the end, Mute perhaps just needed more time to cook; what’s here is fine, but Duncan Jones can do, and has done, far better.