Duncan Jones’s “Mute” is convoluted, needlessly repugnant

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/3/18 1:45am

There is a scene in the middle of Duncan Jones’ newest film “Mute” that is so ugly, so needlessly perverse and repugnant, that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was some sort of endurance test for the audience. I wouldn’t have been shocked if the film’s end credits had been replaced by a video-game-like graphic reading, “Congratulations! You managed to watch this dumpster fire without puking! You win a prize!”

Amidst my efforts not to lose that prize, I spent a substantial amount of time wondering: How much misery should spectators put up with while watching a film? To be clear, I’m not referring to the amount of onscreen misery we can bear to observe before our mirror neurons make it impossible to watch further. Rather, I was curious how distasteful a film can be before any justification is rendered irrelevant. At moments like these, I tend to think of “A Clockwork Orange,” which I suspect most sentient beings with a pulse would concur is brutally unpleasant to watch. Yet many, myself included, also agree that the film’s meditation on criminal rehabilitation both justifies and necessitates this sordid quality. Of course, the end doesn’t always justify the means for every viewer, but the majority of filmgoers probably appreciate that some amount of discomfort on their part is permissible when the subject matter calls for it. 

The point I’m trying to make is this: I have full confidence that Jones thinks that the subject matter of “Mute” (currently available on Netflix) justifies its ugly heart. After all, this story is a longtime passion project of his, a visual and thematic ode to both the sci-fi masterpiece “Blade Runner” and Jones’s own father, the legendary David Bowie. The problem is that one must be able to comprehend a story before one can pass judgment on the necessity of its more extreme proclivities. Sadly, Jones has managed to completely lose sight of this story over the course of years in development hell.  

  Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a mute bartender in 2035 Berlin — which, as already been alluded to, looks shockingly like the 2019 Los Angeles depicted in “Blade Runner.” Leo happens to be dating Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh), a character who edges dangerously deep into manic pixie dream girl territory largely because Leo is, by contrast, such a wet rag. She eventually disappears, and Leo takes it upon himself to find her, putting him at odds with Paul Rudd’s foul-mouthed, spitfire surgeon, Cactus Bill, and Duck (Justin Theroux), Bill’s pedophilic partner. You read that correctly … pedophilia. I’ll get back to that in a second. 

Suffice to say, the plot instantly manages to become a convoluted mess. Screenwriting textbooks encourage writers to start plot threads at the right moment within the film’s internal chronology. You don’t want to force the audience to trudge through needless backstory, but you also don’t want them to feel like they’ve arrived late to the party. The script for “Mute” consistently makes both mistakes, resulting in a film that drags even as you’re trying to get caught up. By the time you finally learn what happened to Naadirah, the film has so thoroughly jumped the shark that you’ve actually forgotten this story was initially about finding her. When I finished watching “Mute,” I read a plot synopsis to figure out if the reason I didn’t know what was going on was: A) It makes no sense, B) I’m an idiot, C) The film’s structure is secretly brilliant or D) I absolutely did not care. I have come to the conclusion that the answer is A, although D is equally true in its own way.  

None of this is much helped by the acting. Everyone on screen is trying their hardest, but they look as lost as Naadirah. Oddly enough, Rudd is the only performer in the film who manages to transcend the chaos around him — surprising given that Skarsgård and Theroux were both headliners on HBO dramas, while Rudd’s current claim to fame is starring as Ant-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yet Cactus Bill is undeniably the most compelling character, a broken man whose sole desire is to return to America with his daughter. 

The film does have one other praiseworthy aspect — a single shot that managed to make a distinct positive impression. A gangster in a bar threatens Leo by pointing out that he has a group of intimidating henchmen. Said henchmen slowly turn their heads toward the camera, the lower half of their faces smeared with black paint full of potential symbolic meaning. It’s a genuinely creative couple of seconds that ever so briefly speaks volumes about the complex, multifaceted future society that Jones developed over the course of years while trying to get this project off the ground. Yet the plot is a shambles in no small part because it’s constantly trying to drag itself out of a mire of detours and minutiae. 

And this is ultimately why Duck’s pedophilia is both so unnerving and so emblematic of the film’s fatal flaw. Perhaps there is a legitimately compelling film about Duck where his horrific tendencies are appropriately explored à la “A Clockwork Orange.” Moreover, I wouldn’t be shocked if that hypothetical film actually exists in Jones’s head alongside countless others set in the universe of “Mute.” But as it is, the film is so overstuffed that everything ultimately feels like window dressing. As a result, Duck’s pedophilia isn’t framed as the repulsive vice it should be but rather as a character quirk that ultimately has very little bearing on the plot. 

At the end of the day, the film is visual soup, a cacophony of creative ideas constantly competing with each other, drowning any semblance of a plot. A good filmmaker has become lost in a labyrinth of his own imagination, hiding the true creative spark of his vision.