MUTE (3.5 out of 10) Written and Directed by Duncan Jones; Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Seyneb, Saleh, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux; Not rated; Running time 126 minutes; On Netflix February 23, 2018.
This review will contain spoilers.
Mute tells the tale of a bartender (Skarsgard) who, thanks to a freak accident as a child, doesn't have the use of his voice. He's involved with a waitress (Saleh) at the club he tends at, a rough and tumble place where the city's gangsters play. When his girlfriend goes missing, he jumps into action trying to discover what happened to her. This leads him to a motley cast of characters including Duck (Theroux) and Cactus (Rudd), a pair of evil doctors loosely based on characters from the Altman version of M*A*S*H.
This film is beautifully photographed and acted, punctuated by a haunting score by Clint Mansell, but unfortunately, those things are the only thing it has going for it. It's designed to be a classic, pulpy noir in a sci-fi setting which, for some, will get compared to other, better films like Blade Runner, but this has none of the poignancy of such films. Sure, it has a future cityscape with flying cars and flashing lights and skyscrapers chock-full of digital billboards and robotic sex workers, but it lacks the heart and the point.
Duncan Jones directs with a confidence that his story and script doesn't warrant. Every detail is dropped as though it's important, but in the final accounting it doesn't add up to anything but pablum. In order to make the noir work in a world of sci-fi, the hero has to undergo an absurd backstory (Amish technophobe who can't speak) to isolate him from the technology that would solve the case with the snap of his fingers. Instead, he blunders accidentally from one contrived situation to the next while everyone else in the movie thinks he's a mastermind.
Throughout the stories, coincidences fold in on each other and the relationships of characters grow tighter after introductions that make everyone seem unrelated. There's one scene in particular that tries so hard to emulate the Earth-shattering reveal in Chinatown, but falls flat because it was easily guessed a few scenes prior and occurred in a scene that lacked any emotional resonance with characters we'd never met and this would be their only scene.
Worse than all of this, though, is how undeniably sexist the film is. It treats women as objects from the get-go. The disappearance of the bartender's girlfriend is what motivates him to go on his violent, silent quest. He only discovers later that she's been a victim of the fridge trope. I think the filmmakers thought they were subverting the trope by placing her body beside the freezer, rather than inside of it. And then there's the constant threat of child sexual abuse that permeates the film from about the halfway point on. It's neither pleasant nor necessary to make whatever thin point the film was making. It honestly felt like an attempt to be "edgy" and add a discomfort to the narrative.
Some watching might confuse that discomfort for a tense story and filmmaking to match, but it really is only the queasiness of waiting to see how far the filmmakers will take the ill-conceived sub-plotline. The threat of rape of the young girl is even used to further twist a knife in the throat of her dying father, to make his last feelings of deep hurt and sadness.
There's something to be said about the idea of following a pair of doctors plucked out of the M*A*S*H universe and set them working for the underworld, there's a lot of interesting territory that story can take you through. Unfortunately, Jones and company drive right by the interesting territory into the world of entitled male rage, murder, and pedophilia. It's just not interesting in this case and is, in fact, actually repellant.
Looking deep and honestly within myself, though, I probably would have devoured this film at the age of thirteen, with no consideration whatsoever to why it might have been problematic. I wouldn't have recognized its misogyny and internalized it, only to be fought against and decoded in myself later, and that seems to be the reason a film like this is so ill-conceived. Especially in a day and age where we know better. It's easier to look at a film from the 1930s and say, "Maybe they didn't know better and it was a different time and the culture wasn't there for that sort of sensitivity." But a film from today should know better. And Jones simply doesn't.
When the film is added up together, it offers no grand idea. The science-fiction setting was nothing more than set dressing and added nothing to the reflection of humanity that the genre should provide. This is the sort of problematic storytelling you get when people try to stay apolitical in their science fiction storytelling: you get a film full of problematic behaviors, peopled almost entirely by white guys who treat women like objects, in a white, homogenous future where nothing has improved.
In interviews, Duncan Jones beamed that this film was his passion project and that it was great that Netflix didn't interfere with his making of it, which leads me to assume that maybe Netflix should have.
This film earns marks for the cinematography, the acting, and the musical score, but fails every other test. 3.5 out of 10.
Avoid it if you can, doubly so if you're sensitive to misogyny and the threat of child rape.