Mute (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Mute (2018)

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Leo silently wanders around Berlin, working his bartender position and stealing moments with his girlfriend.  After she disappears, Leo begins an investigation that will lead him into a conspiracy so complicated the participants barely understand their roles.  Duncan Jones wrote the screenplay for and directs Mute, and stars Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux.

Upfront - Mute is terrible.  Duncan Jones' return to science-fiction is arguably legendary in how bad it is.  There are so many threads of interest muddled because of poor acting, borderline incomprehensible dialogue, or pacing so glacial I could watch it to cool down in the summer.  That's before the homoerotic maybe murderers, maybe not, played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux manage to strike two entirely different nervy tones that are at odds with each other and the plodding pace of the rest of Mute.

...and yet.  It's not often a science-fiction film comes along that makes me think of John Cassavetes' infamously difficult 1976 film The Killing of a Chinese BookieMute shares that film's daring approach, practically betting that I wouldn't stay awake for the entirety of its length or stay engaged in this futuristic Amish noir-tinged science-fiction investigation.  Jones misfired with Mute but the extent of that misfire and what bits remain fascinating up until the end will fuel conversation for months to come.

Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux do their best to create compelling characters out of shallow writing.

Mute takes place in a future Berlin designed as a brutalist techno dystopia cooked up by an architect with a hangover.  When Jones shows the city in wide angles it looks like a generic sci-fi assortment of flashing signs, off-putting color, and gadgetry.  Up close is a different story altogether, with the rigid structures relying on one another for support yet feeling like those supports keep the buildings apart by choice of the occupants.  This reflects the unusual melting pot of future Berlin where British, American, Russians, native Germans, and robots all live in uneasy peace while navigating the world with their blocky technology.  It's the kind of locale where a silent ridiculously stacked Russian bodyguard in a hilariously small pink shirt is both a natural fit and extremely out-of-place.

Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is but one of many oddities in Berlin, yet is disappointingly straightforward given his dramatic potential.  He is Amish, rendered mute because of a motorboat accident when he was a child, and works in a titty bar staffed by robots.  I like the idea of religious groups having to come to terms with encroaching technology intruding on their ascetic means of living.  Nothing like that happens in Mute, and Leo's Amish background is used as a storytelling crutch by giving him a reason to remain mute (his mother didn't want him to have the surgery to restore his voice) in a world of advanced technology.  Jones doesn't fall into the common misunderstanding that Amish shun all tech, but doesn't do much with Leo's dramatic options either.

This is also where Mute hits its biggest stumbling block.  Critic Kristen Lopez has been a kind and entertaining guest on my podcast Changing ReelsWhen we discussed Hush, she talked about how rendering a character mute is an easy out for an able-bodied performer to slip into the role while providing easy dramatic points as the character is usually made mute by an accident or sickness.  Leo embodies this shallow portrayal of disability exactly, and Skarsgård - who has been excellent in films like The East and Melancholia - fails to rise to the challenge of his silent character.  There are times he looks genuinely lost about what to do to communicate Leo's emotions, resulting in an inert performance that falls dead on the screen.

Rudd and Theroux do their best to liven up the plot but feel like they're from two different films instead of longtime partners.  I thought of Vince Vaughn's underrated performance from Clay Pigeons with Rudd, who seems ready to snap at the slightest inconvenience.  Theroux, for his part, recalls another infamously terrible and/or wonderful cinematic experience by approaching the most monstrous actions with the same incredulity Mark Wahlberg brought to The Happening.  What's missing is any sense of playfulness to make their disparate styles gel, and the cumulative effect is one of two menacing action figures posing at one another while Jones barely musters the energy to smash them together.

In another negative for Mute, all the women are thin afterthoughts.

There are plenty of interesting elements taken on their own, but are put together with dialogue so vague that it gives me greater respect for writers who can communicate in-universe shorthand.  Bit players come and go with expository lines that explain disconnected pieces of information or outright tell the audience who they are.  None of this helps and, try as I might, if I was threatened with live surgery and no anesthesia I'm unsure I'd be able to piece together even a rough idea of what happens in Mute.  I might have been able to get through on texture and style, but those are in short supply when the focus is on a trio of unremarkable protagonists instead of their relationship to Berlin.

As excruciating an experience Mute can be, I can't wait to find the right conversation to dig into its potential.  Jones is a talented filmmaker capable of mid-budget hits à la Source Code and making a rare palatable video game adaptation with WarcraftMute is a colossal misfire but the density of its world shows there's still plenty of imagination left in Jones brain.

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Mute (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Duncan Jones.
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux.

Posted by Andrew

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