Mute (2018)

Mute first published by

Mute is set in the same universe as Duncan Jones’ feature debut Moon (2009), and its events take place shortly after that film’s events. We know this, because Moon‘s protagonist Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), now returned to Earth, is seen on television sets and moving posters in the background of Mute, agitating for his own and his many clones’ rights against the corporation that created and exploited them. These cameos strike an odd note, lulling us into the notion that there might be a latent coherence enabling Jones’ different SF worlds to exist in each others’ orbits – although viewers will be harder pressed to find references here to Jones’ Source Code (2011), let alone to Warcraft: The Beginning (2016). 

In fact Moon is just one of many morphemes in Mute‘s unspoken cinematic language. Its events may unfold mostly in Berlin, but that city’s ubiquitous neon lighting, flying cars and polyglottal multiculturalism are obviously, overtly even, influenced by the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1982) – as is Mute‘s focus on a noirish urban demimonde. Jones repays his loan by introducing new motivation and rationalisation for Ridley Scott’s retrofuturism, here no longer merely an elegant stylisation, but a reflection of the hero’s own retro sensibility – a sensibility that always marks him as out of place in his mid-21st-century setting. For, raised in an Amish community, Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgård) lost his powers of speech in a childhood accident and was refused by his devout mother the now straightforward surgery that could easily bring an end to his muteness. Now an adult, Leo not only (metaphor alert!) lacks a voice in his society, and still shuns the technology all around him (he is described, rather cruelly, as a “tech-tard”). Instead, he has created for himself, right in the middle of a buzzing metropolis, a hand-crafted haven of back-to-basics, Luddite simplicity, like an inversion of the city-to-country dynamic in Witness (1985). That simplicity stretches to Leo’s character; for he is an uncomplicated, old-fashioned sort of hero, a decent innocent driven solely by his love for girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), and his willingness to do anything to find her when she suddenly goes missing. ‘Naadi’ comes with her hair dyed blue – although in a photo from out of the past it was red – making her absence, and Leo’s longing, reminiscent of yet another film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

So Mute is a movie mash-up – or indeed a M*A*S*H-up, given that two of its other major characters, the tightly wound ‘Cactus’ Bill (Paul Rudd) and his kiddy-fiddling comrade Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux), are both wise-cracking military surgeons – although they are also, unlike their counterparts in Robert Altman’s 1970 classic, deserters, now struggling to lead civilian lives while regularly freelancing their medical services to the criminal underworld. Mouthy and morally adrift, these two are the very opposite of Leo, forming between them the precise intersection of, as one character puts it, AWOL and a-hole — and their unblinking capacity to do wrong brings a very uneasy edge to the buddy comedy that they generate together. 

All this is at best a miscellany, and at worst a mess, but the clash of tropes and types seems part of the point, as Jones brings the obsolescent values of cinema’s silent era (embodied by Leo) into collision with a less rooted postmodern future, and sees what survives to emerge from the murky waters. You can see this tension in the pursuit of a whizzbang airborne vehicle by a classic (grounded) Mercedes (whose driver had never commanded a vehicle before), or in Cactus’ endless, frustrated pursuit of both literal and metaphorical identity, or in Duck’s prurient fixation on the next generation, or in the transformative ability of Naadirah’s non-binary flatmate Luba (Robert Sheehan) to be whoever he wants to be. Meanwhile, for all the technology on display (drone-delivered food, a device that triggers a rush of memories, etc.), Mute goes back to basics in its principal theme of the many forms that familial (or quasi-familial) love can take. So it is that we observe the strong, emphatically homosocial bond between Cactus and Duck (who regularly address each other as ‘babe’), Duck’s shifting status as unofficial ‘uncle’ to Cactus’ daughter Josie (Lea-Marie Bastin), the harem of sex workers who babysit Josie, Luba’s deep, self-sacrificing love for (and assimilation to) Naadirah, and Leo’s way of reaching out, despite his lack of speech, to a constellation of characters who are not quite blood relatives (Naadirah’s mother, Josie, Luba). In this context, it seems fitting that the film ends with a posthumous dedication to both Jones’ real father David, and to his nanny (and ‘second mother’) Marion Skene.   

Summary: Thematically rich but muted, Jones’ dystopian sci-fi sinks as much as it swims.

© Anton Bitel