Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan
Plot: A mute bartender (Skarsgard) tears his way through the Berlin criminal underworld when his girlfriend (Saleh) goes missing.
Two movies about mutes in such a short space of time. Shape of the Water has risen to critical acclaim with Guillermo Del Toro’s unconventional love story, the mute female hero being one of the main reasons for standing ovations across the globe. This bodes badly for Duncan Jones, desperate for a win after a panned Warcraft movie, whose pet project, released low-key on Netflix, is hard not to compare to Del Toro’s masterpiece.
Which, in many ways, is largely unfair, because both movies are worlds apart. Del Toro’s was a fantasy love story with a political backdrop. Mute is closer to the likes of Drive or Blade-runner, a Neo-Noir starring a silent unlikely hero who is forced to take up the mantle of a detective when a loved one comes under peril. Throw in a smattering of sci-fi into the mix: Mute is set in a futuristic metropolis imagining of Berlin, and Duncan Jones’ picture isn’t really anything like Shape of the Water. Yet why two mute heroes in 2018? Perhaps it is the intriguing challenge the director and screenwriter are tasked with working around. A hero without speech means that the team have to fall back on visuals. It makes for some interesting quirks, like Leo’s mute bartender communicating with his girlfriend via knocking and an artistic talent that comes in handy during waiting periods. It gives Mute an original feel as the detective needs to question hardened criminals without words. He strikes quite the figure marching from place to place, armed with pen and paper, angrily shoving written notes into the bad guys’ faces. Usually before taking a beating… It’s not only the crew that need to work hard to bring a mute character to life, but also the actor. Alexander Skarsgard is the best thing about Mute, which causes a sigh of relief for anyone worried Skarsgard took the part, because it meant he didn’t have to learn any lines. Skarsgard is an expressive yet silent figure, introduced to the audience as a madly-in-love puppy. His love for his girlfriend almost borders on sickly, as he dismisses the fact she clearly is hiding secrets from him, miming that as long as they are together, he doesn’t care what she gets up to. Regardless of how much you agree with his hopelessly romantic view on life, it conjures up this image of a man who would do anything for his girlfriend. When she goes missing overnight, he becomes a whirlwind of vengeance. Skarsgard makes up with the lack of words with a face that bleeds emotion. Bad guys are taken aback by his tormented features. He makes for an intimidating presence and for a lot of the time, that fuels this movie. You look forward to the quiet moments with Leo, where the actor simply acts – a man with his very reason for existence taken from him.
Sadly, the rest of the film, compared to Shape of Water or not, is a total dud. It plays out like a missing girl mystery, but the script doesn’t seem to have too much of an idea how to actually write a mystery story. Leo drifts from clue to clue, the script not really bothering to come up with too many red herrings. There are some nasty people, yet the gaps are very rarely filled in. Instead the plot jumps to the story of two American soldiers, one retired and the other AWOL, who moonlight as surgeons for gangsters trying to avoid hospitals. Paul Rudd is a father who suffers from temper tantrums. Justin Theroux is a paedophile. Both of them are horrible people, yet their old army days connect them with an unshakeable bond, even if both characters seem intent on breaking their friendship off. They make for a strange pairing, Rudd’s charisma hiding a darker personality and Theroux’s true motivations never quite clear. However, they seem like they are off on their own movie, the narrative totally forgetting the mystery plot as soon as it cuts to them. It is arguable that their development is vital for the finale of the movie, but it is definitely clunky writing. It is a typical Netflix movie, where they do not quite understand the pacing a feature film, instead falling back on their slow-burning television style. Mute feels, like most Netflix movies, like it would be better suited as a television series, where lengthy segues to Paul Rudd spending time with his daughter would feel more natural. As it stands, these indulgent subplots just feel distracting here, getting in the way of meaty murder mystery. By the end, the narrative has got so bloated, the twist is that little bit too convoluted to work out. One character’s motivations aren’t quite made clear and you get the impression that Duncan Jones’ movie just escaped him.
Final Verdict: Mute is a stylishly shot idea with a great performance from Skarsgard, but the pacing is dreary and the story-telling isn’t as polished as it should have been.