When looking at Mute (2018), Duncan Jones’ “spiritual sequel” to Moon (2009), as a reflection of its predecessor, critics are bound to be disappointed. Moon is a beautiful exercise in simplicity; other than Sam Rockwell we barely see another human face. Mute is a crowded and complicated film full of unlikable characters. Moon is full of feeling; Mute is emotionally detached.
If you put Moon out of mind, however, Mute is a fascinating movie. It’s a difficult movie, one that asks its viewer to deal with uncomfortable subject matter and an uneven tone. What Jones offers in return is stunning visuals, a cyberpunk future that feels lived-in, and a unique cast of characters.
Mute begins with our protagonist, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), as a young boy. He’s facedown in the water, blood billowing from jagged wounds in his throat. There was a motorboat accident, and his vocal cords were cut. His parents pull him out and we learn from their attire that they’re Amish. As part of their religious beliefs, they refuse treatment for Leo beyond saving his life. Despite the technology being available, they refuse to fix his damaged voice box.
Leo’s parents’ fears of technology will be a focal point throughout the film. Despite having abandoned his “old ways”, Leo is still very much a technophobe. He lives as simple a life as possible in Berlin, having moved to the city from the U.S. as part of a “return to the motherland” deal with the German government. He’s an outsider in every way, refusing to communicate except by writing on a pad of paper.
Leo’s story is the weakest link in Mute. While it’s his search for his missing girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) that ultimately moves the plot forward, Leo is a boring do-gooder. Skarsgård plays him with a kind of kicked-puppy sadness that doesn’t really correlate with his detective skills. We know nothing about him other than his Amish upbringing and reluctance to use technology. He’s a mute bartender in a bizarre robot strip club, so how does he suddenly become Sherlock Holmes?
We’re shown enough of Leo and Naadirah’s relationship to understand that he really loves her, and that she’s a troubled mess. Like the tragic good-girl-gone-bad in every noir detective film, Naadirah tries to warn Leo away from her. Saleh is lovely for the bits of screen-time she has, but she and Skarsgård have almost no chemistry and their romance feels forced.
Mute then dives into the story of two American black-market doctors, Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck Teddington (Justin Theroux). Both Bill and Duck are outsiders, though for entirely different reasons. Bill is a temperamental jerk who wants nothing more than to take his young daughter back to the U.S., while Duck is, well, a pedophile. What’s difficult is that Duck and Bill are both far more interesting and likable than Leo. Bill, especially, played by the affable, everyman hunk Paul Rudd, is almost a fun antihero for most of the film. He hires prostitutes to babysit his daughter Josie (Mia-Sophie and Lea-Marie Bastin). He swears profusely and creatively. He gets excited about going to the mall. The thing is, he’s still one of the film’s two villains, and we learn why in a harsh, roundabout way.
Throughout Mute, we watch Bill and Leo’s stories back and forth simultaneously, without any explanation as to why their stories co-exist. They encounter one another because of Bill’s underworld connections and Leo’s hunt for his girlfriend, but then they split once more until nearly the end of the movie. It’s when Jones and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson reveal their hand and we learn why Bill and Leo are connected. It complicates an already complex narrative and muddies up whatever message the viewer might glean.
In the end, it’s Bill’s desire to take care of his daughter at whatever cost is the film’s primary focus. The closing credits feature a dedication to Jones’ father, David Jones (better known to the world as David Bowie) and his long-time nanny, Marion Skene. Josie is the lens through which we should view the world of Mute, because she’s Jones’ analog. She is in danger throughout the film but has no agency of her own. She also must rely on the adults around her for protection, regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad” people. They’re all she has.
Each of the primary protagonists – Leo, Bill, and Duck – is a different type of caretaker for Josie. Leo is goodness personified. Upon meeting Josie and seeing her coloring, he draws her a pair of cartoon bears, one large and one small, holding paws. He’s angelic, in this instance, and he goes on to save Josie. Bill is human and flawed, and in trying to be good to Josie, he ultimately hurts her. The true evil, and ultimate villain, is Duck, though even he is (unfortunately) painted in a somewhat ambiguous light.
Mute is complicated. It digs into difficult topics without giving any answers, which proved to be too much for most critics. For those willing to put in the effort, Mute is a disturbing, stylish detective noir that will get under your skin.