There’s a scene in the sci-fi noir “Mute” where bad guys Cactus (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux) are kicking back at a bowling alley. This movie is set in the future, so of course this bowling alley needs to have some sort of futuristic spin to it. But instead of showing us some high-tech bowling balls or pins made out of some sort of space-age carbon-fiber, we instead just get a 15-second artificial crane shot establishing that the bowling alley has not just one, and not only two, but three levels for people to bowl.
“Is bowling really that popular in this futuristic Germany to beget three levels of lanes?” we wonder. “Wouldn’t the complex pin-setting machines on each floor, potential of bowlers accidentally throwing their balls into the ceiling, or people mistakenly rolling their balls down stairways onto other bowlers below pose a massive safety hazard? Isn’t the architectural complexities of building such a large alley that consumes so much energy even profitable?” These questions don’t have good answers, but they do reveal one illuminating truth: With “Mute,” Duncan Jones did not think things through.
“Mute” is a movie that tries so hard to be unique and futuristic that it doesn’t bother building up the rules of its own universe. We see the hundreds of proliferating glass screens akin to “Blade Runner,” quirky, blue-haired belles borrowed from “The Fifth Element,” and mafioso mayhem similar to those in “Looper.” But never do we feel like we’re actually living in whatever city or place this is in (Germany, but you forget that along the way.) Our universe is a big, limitless place, but there is still a basic structure to the way things work that “Mute” doesn’t really comprehend.
Basically, Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) is a mute bartender who doesn’t do too well with technology. He’s dating Naadirah (Sayneb Saleh), a cocktail waitress with a mysterious past. Naadirah indicates there’s someone she wants Leo to meet, but suddenly disappears, prompting Leo on a quest to find her. Around the same time, we meet Cactus and Duck, two skilled surgeons who moonlight by pulling bullets out of the legs of Russian mafia members.
Cactus wants to leave for the U.S. but can’t as he ditched out on his military service too soon. That’s why he does favors for the mob, so they can give him a new ID so he and his daughter head back to the states. Duck is also a pedophile, a random character trait that’s given ample attention in the film but not in a way that seems relevant or necessary to anything.
Finding out how Leo, Cactus and Duck all intertwine takes a lot of time. The second act is where Duncan Jones and writer Michael Robert Johnson live out their wannabe noir fantasies, but it’s also an agonizing slog that feels disjointed and fractured. Things pick up again in the final act, after all the storytelling cards have been laid out on the table. But the culmination is so unsatisfying we wonder why we didn’t turn off “Mute” earlier.
“Mute’s” visuals are nauseating and its story is lackluster at best, but it is not an overly terrible or atrocious film. It’s an exercise in wanting your film to be too much, and wanting too much out of your filmmaker. “Mute” is a story that didn’t really need to be told in the future, but the fact that it is clearly made Jones want to establish the future-ness of it as much as possible. And despite having only directed three features before this, Jones is something of a cult fan favorite among sci-fi enthusiasts, particularly for his low-budget, subtle but grandiose sci-fi flick, “Moon.” That made people want more than Jones was ever able to deliver.
“Moon” is clearly at the opposite end of the sci-fi storytelling spectrum as “Mute,” but not in terms of quality. “Moon” was a film that used relatively few resources and had just one live action actor, Sam Rockwell. Within those limited confines, Jones’ creativity was able to blossom most beautifully. “Mute,” though, gave Jones more resources but not the operating manuals he needed to utilize them best.