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MUTE Is Messy, Bland Sci-Fi Cotton Candy (Review)

MUTE Is Messy, Bland Sci-Fi Cotton Candy (Review)

Based on Duncan Jones‘ debut with the thoughtful, creative Moon, its spiritual sequel Mute is a profound disappointment. Jones has been working on the neon noir for 15 years (since before Moon), and that may explain why so much of it feels like the undisciplined idea dump from a first-time director.

In a nearish future Berlin of the Netflix release, Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) trudges through the city, lanky and distraught; he’s a mute bartender idealistically in love with a scantily-clad waitress called Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). When her side of the bed is cold and empty one morning, Leo confronts a series of underworld figures to find out what happened while a pair of greasy mob surgeons–Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux)–navigate the criminal underbelly with their own goals.

The two fundamental problems with Mute are that 1) Jones (and co-writer Michael Robert Johnson) forgot to write a main character and 2) they didn’t rule out any ideas–bizarre, profound, or simple–that roiled through their minds while writing it.

Skarsgård, who’s proven a range from silly to severe, is as good as the giant carved log he uses to bash bad guys. Leo isn’t so much a character as a set of three characteristics. He grew up Amish (which is why a childhood injury took his vocal chords despite surgery’s capability of saving them), he cannot talk, and he’s end-of-the-planet devoted to Naadirah. It’s also not that Leo doesn’t talk; it’s that he hardly communicates. He uses generic sign language once or twice, he scribbles notes sometimes, but most of his story involves Skarsgård staring a confused fashion, like a tan Frankenstein’s monster. He’s less than uninteresting.

The romance between Naadirah and Leo is also hollow and written like a high school freshman’s idea of devotion. As if to match, Leo’s quest for her is weirdly passive; he doesn’t seem to learn anything until he learns everything. He’s far from the unstoppable force of nature that typically catalyzes a mystery like this.

The character vacuum and the lack of momentum in his hunt leaves Rudd and Theroux to shoulder the more vibrant half of the film by goofing off in sleazy places. Like a dumpster-dwelling Hawkeye and B.J. Hunnicutt, they booze it up and refuse to let little things like disgusting sexual assaults get in the way of their friendship.

The center never holds on this movie, and the characters are often erratic in a cardboard way. Rudd has a blast despite being desperately miscast. It’s difficult to go gruff and haggard with an elfin twinkle still in your eye. Skarsgård is broodingly intense, but there’s simply nothing for him to do. In one scene, he gets information he needs because a talkative john (Dominic Monaghan living his best life) keeps talking to a stranger who barges in and literally doesn’t communicate with him. It’s the most convenient plot advancement in a movie with more than a few.

Which is the weird part. The Berlin of Mute is trashy and beautiful and overwhelmingly realized. The film succeeds in one major aspect by dropping us head first into the simmering sci-fi world, not by clunky inorganic exposition dump, but with dozens of details and minor encounters. Even Sam Rockwell’s cameo tying this movie directly to Moon passes with a flash instead of lingering weightily, winking hungrily at the audience and hobbling an already-shaky momentum.

Sometimes it feels like Jackson Pollock went bananas on a paint-by-numbers drawing of Dick Tracy. You get frustrated when the lines peek out from behind the splatter because it seemed like Jones was painting outside of them. Other times you long for the structure that simple cliche would bring. It’s weirdness with a safety net, gorgeously vibrant and dull.

1.5 out of 5 drone-delivered burritos

Images: Netflix

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