I convinced myself to watch Mute (the first time), despite the so-so trailer and early bad reviews. I thought I had made a mistake. On the first viewing, I felt that the film fell short for so many reasons; bad acting, sophomoric directing, failed productions design, the cast felt like a joke, etc. I would have noped-out sooner but Duncan Jones' film Moon is a borderline masterpiece.
Mute begins, more of less, with the most romantic of love affairs. Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), the protagonist of Mute is sort of the Germanic version of Amish, a luddite who willfully refuses the advents of modern technology. He’s also mute. When his blue-haired girlfriend, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), goes missing, his search for her, through an elaborate underworld populated with ne'er-do-wells becomes the primary driver of the movie.
Now, on my second viewing I realized what I had taken in … Mute is M*A*S*H gone evil.
The point of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux as Elliott Gould/Trapper and Donald Sutherland/Hawkeye is blatantly obvious.
-Rudd/Trapper sports the same mustache, the old MASH hat and parker (and reaches for a martini after surgery).
-Hawkeye/Theroux is blonde, wears glasses, wears an out of place large sweater (for those cold winter nights in Crabapple Cove) and calls Rudd/Trapper babe, all from Altman's film.
-Rudd drives a modified Mad Max sort of Humvee painted with US stars.
-As in Altman's 1970 film, M*A*S*H, a voice coming through a loudspeaker acts as a kind of chorus but here warns about AWOL US military personnel...in this case a metaphor for a wayward American morality.
Which brings us to the true subject of this film.
Altman's film was an anti-Vietnam statement in which Hawkeye/Trapper are anti-establishment subversives. Here "post Kabul" they have become monsters - kidnapping, murdering, pedophiles...sociopathic if not psychopaths. This iteration of "America" is not anti-establishment or subversive but the brutal corrupt establishment capable of turning violent at any moment (i.e., the scene in the mall where Rudd/Trapper threatens the security guard). That the film does not succeed is debatable and it left me wondering what was it actually trying to say?
Mute has its flaws but I could also point out that it has two bold performances against type from Rudd and Theroux, that define the film's skewered heart. Coming fresh off Three Billboards, I saw a lot of similarities in how ambiguously the characters were handled. Not as deftly handled, but very much on the same wavelength in treating the audience as adults and showing “difficult” characters and complex relationships. The project really needed a script doctor. The components for greatness are there, but the tenuous connections between the two plots (of which Hawkeye and Pierce are by far the more interesting) needed to be interwoven much earlier.
I still don't understand why some side characters were needed. A lot of the fat could have been excised with getting rid of the Lock Stock gangsters and the two timing pimp. The ex-boyfriend turned friend was needed, but needed a more consistent personality and arc.
While the film does struggle to visually match the expansive/expensive splendor of say a Blade Runner, it still creates a very specific, brooding sense of place, a vision of the future through a distorted mirror. The world was believable to me, in its mix of old and new. I can't help wondering if the movie would be better if it was actually set in 1970s Berlin, as Jones may have originally intended - the futurism hardly seems integral to the plot.
I remember reading a feature in Empire magazine on this film, with Jones enthusiastically expounding on how great it was that Netflix would just trust filmmakers and leave them to their own devices without interference. While we all hate studio notes, I think occasional misfires like this show that the pure and undiluted product of a director’s mind isn’t always genius, and that sometimes you do need an obnoxious grey suit to keep things in line. I sincerely hope one day Duncan Jones will work with someone who can shape his vast imagination into something truly special.
'Mute' is the fourth feature film Jones has directed, following 2016’s Warcraft, 2011’s Source Code and the critically acclaimed 2009 movie Moon. 'Mute' is now streaming on Netlfix.
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